Author, Autism Advocate & Consultant
It is essential to carefully consider the effects of a divorce and custody arrangements in all cases where minor children are involved, but this is particularly true when there is reason to suspect there is a child with special needs involved. Often debate ensues concerning whether or not a child has a special need. This is particularly true when one of the involved parents does not accept a special needs diagnosis. This is a typical scenario when a mild form of autism is suspected or even confirmed in a child. Children with mild autism are often able to mask their differences and copy others behavior, making them appear neurotypical when in reality, they may be suffering great emotional pain, as well as, neurobiological challenges. These conditions set a child up for failure and put them at risk for bullying, suicide, aggressive behaviors and society dropout. It is imperative children with even a very mild case of autism receive supports and interventions throughout their developmental years, and for as long as necessary, to insure the best possible outcome and quality of life for said child.
Entire family dynamics must be considered when deciding with whom the child should be placed with for majority custody arrangements. For example, if there are siblings, extended but involved family members, or even a well-loved animal that will be left behind upon a divorce, the ramifications for the child with autism can be devastating. The effect of change in routines, change in environment, separation from loved ones and trusted pets, separation from what is known in general, creates neurobiological havoc within a person who has a developmental delay; the kind of havoc that is often unable to return from.
When deciding what is best for the child when a suspected diagnosis of autism is in question, it is essential a team of professionals including judges, attorneys, developmental psychologists, developmental pediatricians and mediators be involved (Friesen, Giliberti, Katz-Leavy, Osher, & Pullmann, 2003). Never, should one caseworker or specialist be the determining factor in such situations. A team approach is the only way to ascertain the child’s placement largely because the autism diagnosis is so often misunderstood and too easily missed by one expert. A group approach to custody decisions is particularly important should a parent involved in a custody decision be unable or unwilling to provide support services for the child.
Friesen, B. J., Giliberti, M., Katz-Leavy, J., Osher, T., & Pullmann, M. D. (2003). Research in the service of policy change: The custody problem. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 11, 39-47.
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