Autism and the Blended Family – Part 1
Autism and the Blended Family – Part 1
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Ron Deal, M.MFT. and Stephanie Holmes, M.A.
This blog originally ran as an article in Issue 48 of Autism Parent Magazine: Connecting and Communicating with Autism edition June 2016. Part 2 will be posted on July 19th.
Looking back, Carol, a mother with an AS/ASD (Autism Spectrum/Autism Spectrum Disorder) child, could easily describe how hard being a single parent was; she prayed for years for a loving husband to help her raise her ASD son and his NT (neuro-typical) older sister. Now, remarried and trying to blend a stepfamily of six, she wonders if staying single would have served her children better.
Rachel, Carol’s 12 year-old daughter and big sister to Andy, her 9 year-old ASD child, really liked Jerry at first; and she was glad to see her mom dating again. As the big sister in a single parent home, Rachel had grown accustomed to helping mom care for Andy. She also worried about her mother who was abandoned by Rachel’s father over conflicts in caring for Andy and who, therefore, was essentially alone to provide financially for the family and manage the home. Jerry made her mom smile and laugh again; Rachel loved seeing that.
Eventually, however, the initial lift brought to Carol and the home fell prey to the tasks of integrating two families. Jerry brought two children to the marriage, as well; a 13 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son (both neuro-typical or NT). He shares custody with his ex-wife and the kids split their time between the two homes. It turns out that Jerry and Carol did much of their dating while his kids were at their mom’s house, so no one quite anticipated what the relationships between the kids would be once the wedding took place and everyone moved in together. Part-time “getting to know you” activity became a full-time clash of realities.
Merging two families is nearly always stressful for stepfamilies; they are combining cultures, values, loss narratives, parenting styles, financial situations, and daily living preferences all while trying to learn to love and trust after having been wounded and scarred by the past. In the best of situations, this naturally creates stress. Add a special needs child and parenting demands to the list and stress increases exponentially.
Jerry assumed that because his son, Tyler, and Andy were so close in age they would enjoy each other and play well together. He wanted them to share a room together but Carol insisted that Andy keep his own room in order to maintain continuity for Andy in the midst of family change. Jerry, now Andy’s stepdad, became aggravated that Andy gets “so many unfair privileges.” But his frustration escalated to fear after about a year when his son started dragging his feet about coming over for visitation. When Jerry asked Tyler why he said he’d rather stay at his mom’s than have to deal with Andy.
Meanwhile, things between Carol and Rachel were not good with Jerry’s daughter, Jennifer. Stepmothers and stepdaughters commonly have tension while bonding, but Carol and Jennifer’s relationship was complicated even more by Andy. And then there were the differences between girls. In caring for her brother over time, Rachel had matured beyond her years; Carol couldn’t understand why Jennifer wasn’t the same. Jennifer seemed self-absorbed in comparison. Needless to say the two sides—mother and daughter vs. Jennifer—remained disconnected and struggled to enjoy each other.
Like salt in a wound, these stepfamily issues just added stress to the never-ending emotional, educational, and physical care of Andy. As before Carol hoped her ex-husband (Andy’s father) would step in and help but he declined most of his visitation time and when he did take Andy and Rachel for the weekend he refused to honor Carol’s structure for their son. Andy would get out of sync and spread the distress on the rest of the family upon returning home.
Carol was at a loss. She kept thinking that maybe she should have stayed single.
In addition to renewing their spiritual values, Carol and Jerry will find hope for their family when they merge what they are learning about healthy stepfamilyliving and effective ASD parenting. There must be growth on both sides and a stronger couple unity in how they manage their home, but in the meantime, they should expect stress and transition.
A person on the autism spectrum (AS/ASD) has rigid routines, a restrictive and/or intense focus, struggles to connect interpersonally and emotionally, may have behavioral challenges, and does not respond well to change. Growing as a stepfamily involves a huge amount of change. It is no wonder, then, that many clinicians believe the divorce rate of ASD blended families to be higher than other stepfamilies. To avoid another family disruption, couples must get proactive in managing their home and protecting their marriage.
Practical Help for ASD Stepfamilies
A thorough exploration of ASD stepfamily dynamics would require an entire book. However, below is some practical help for commonly reported dilemmas. For more on healthy stepfamily living read my (Ron) articles or books including The Smart Stepfamily and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage; for more on ASD families read Stephanie’s book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith.
Perspective for Stepparents
You knew when you stepped into the picture that caring for an ASD child meant carrying all the responsibilities and obligations of parenthood, however, you may not have fully understood what that meant until after the wedding; experiencing AS/ASD on a daily basis will certainly open your eyes. It is okay to learn as you go; but learn you must. Keep an open mind; ask lots of questions; and make it your goal to unify your marriage around ASD matters.
Let us add here that we applaud your willingness to give and love in this way. You are taking on a complex family system (and the autistic child may not fully understand or appreciate that) and are doing so by choice. This is a heroic task and we commend you for it.
In many dissolved AS/ASD families one biological parent has left the marriage and their parenting responsibilities to avoid stressors or responsibilities of having a special needs child. (Ironically, once you step in, they may now fight the structure or protocols you and your spouse put in place to support the AS/ASD child.) Don’t feel obligated to make-up for all of their mistakes or fill all the gaps they left behind. Just be who you need to be and work in concert with your spouse (they are the expert on their ASD child) to determine your best role. Talk with your children and educate them about what is needed regarding structure in the home.
Here are some additional suggestions:
If you are still dating, move slowly toward marriage. Carol and Jerry inadvertently segregated their dating time and didn’t allow all of the children time to adjust to each other or the realities of an ASD parenting situation. This common mistake led to a huge blind spot that blind-sided them after the wedding. Instead, take time to learn about AS/ASD while dating and share both what you’re learning and experiencing with your kids (if you have them). As you increasingly consider marriage, be proactive to get all of the children together (to the extent you can) in order to consider the family mix. What happens when they are together should carry a lot of weight. In other words, getting them together is not just a “play-date”, but it should be part of your decision whether you continue dating, marry, or go your separate ways. If you can’t be a family, think long and hard about getting married.
Move slowly with transitions or big changes. Getting married is a big transition. But for an ASD child, so is adding the stepparent’s furniture to the home, or changing a Saturday afternoon routine to go see a new step-grandmother. Trust your spouse. Major and sudden changes may cause behavioral or emotional meltdowns and thus disruption to your family. AS/ASD persons can learn new transitions but move slowly.
Lower your bonding expectations. By definition AS/ASD persons have issues connecting relationally. This will be the same with you. Don’t take it personally. Also, he or she may say socially inappropriate things when stressed like, “I don’t like you”, “I don’t want you here”, “I don’t like those new kids—they are not my brothers and sisters”, or “I want my dad”, etc.. These are expressions of difficulty with transition. Do not try to force yourself or your children into a relationship. Just focus on walking through the open doors you do have. As the child adjusts to the new normal and learns to trust you, (s)he will let you know when the door opens wider.
Connect with intentionality. A great way to bond with the AS/ASD child is through their special interests. For example, if they are into weather and weather patterns, learn about that and try to converse or do activities around that topic. Special interests are good access points for building relationships.
Learn Tolerance. Learn why the AS/ASD child behaves the way they do. Understanding that their brain is not neurologically wired the same as other N-T kids is vital. Learn all you can about their cognitive capacity and how you can work within it.
Ron L. Deal, M.MFT., is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a popular conference speaker, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s, books, and curriculum for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (with David H. Olson). Ron is one of the most widely read authors on blended family living in the country. His one-minute radio feature FamilyLife Blended can be heard daily on stations nationwide and online. Learn more at FamilyLife.com/blended.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism /Asperger’s Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face.