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Autism And Divorce Mediation

One of the most compelling reasons to mediate a divorce (or any dispute for that matter) is that mediation ensures the parties to the dispute maintain control over the outcome. I regularly remind my clients that no matter how carefully you explain all the factual issues to a judge, a judge who has only met you in court a few times isn’t going to understand the ins and outs of how your family functions and what is best for your children like you, the co-parents, do. This is true for every family, but perhaps it is an even more compelling reason to mediate for families with autistic children.*** Most judges or magistrates do not fully understand autism, and they certainly won’t fully understand the additional considerations for families raising autistic children.

Here are a couple of ways mediation can help divorcing families with autistic children.

Difficulty With Transitions

Many autistic children struggle with transitions. We all experience hundreds of transitions daily. For example, waking up, getting dressed, putting down a favorite video game or book to do something else, going to school, and changing classes are all examples of transitions. We all struggle with transitions at times. Hunger and exhaustion often make transitions more challenging. In addition to these factors, autistic children may also struggle with the cognitive adjustments that are necessary to move through the transition.

Divorce is a big transition for everyone involved, and it may take autistic children more time to process what divorce means for the family and what changes will occur. Mediation can be a helpful tool for co-parents to develop a plan to explain to their children what some of the initial changes will look like and to give their children time to process and adjust to those changes. For example, parents of an autistic child might develop an agreed-upon script for explaining to the child, together and individually, what changes they can expect and when. Parents can also include their child’s providers, such as their BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst), in the discussion to help them develop and implement consistent routines in both households that will help the child more easily manage transitions from one house to another and from home to school. No two autistic children are the same and no two co-parenting discussions are the same. The needs of the child and the family as a whole will, of course, also change over time. So, this won’t be a one-and-done discussion, and there is not a one size fits all solution. Having these conversations during the divorce mediation process, however, can help make the larger transition easier for the child, which, in turn, makes it more manageable for the parents and the entire family.

Special Interests

Many autistic children and adults have special interests. Special interests are not mere hobbies. A hobby is something that people enjoy doing, usually in their spare time, and may not want to put it away to focus on school, work, or other obligations. A special interest, however, is far more than this. The need for a special interest often increases as stressors increase. It is something that the individual can control, knows inside and out, and uses to help ground themselves and reenergize themselves when the capacity for employing other coping methods has dwindled. For example, a student who has depleted their internal socioemotional resources during the school day may require designated time to focus solely on a special interest.

In my son’s case, his special interests come in the form of practicing his competitive cubing (Rubik’s Cube) skills and reviewing roller coaster statistics (name, location, year built, height, slope, number of inversions, etc.). Other special interests may include sports statistics, historical trivia, playing certain games, listening to a certain song, watching a certain movie… the list is as varied as the people are.

Mediation can be an avenue for divorcing parents to fully explore how they will support their children in their special interests when they live in separate households. Will they adhere to the same routine in both households so that the child can have their special interest time when needed? If the special interest requires something additional, such as a magazine subscription or a Rubik’s Cube, will each household have its own or will the child transport it back and forth? Who will be responsible for any fees or costs associated with the special interest? Will the parents set money aside or give the child an allowance to use toward funding the special interest? Understanding the importance of the special interest and providing consistency for the child is the most important thing. Mediation allows the families to ensure both, whereas a judge’s order may not appreciate this importance.

Of course, there are other topics for which these types of facilitated discussions can be very helpful and extremely important. For example, parents of a child with significant medical needs, such as regular hospital stays or medications, can benefit from a mediated discussion that addresses who takes the child to medical appointments, how the parents keep track of medications and refills, and how the parents share the costs of medical treatments/ A child with sensory processing challenges may use a calming pod or a bean bag to help regulate themselves. The parents can take advantage of the mediation process to discuss how they will address the child’s sensory needs in each of their houses. For parents of children who receive government disability services, parents may wish to discuss and reach an agreement about the parents will share responsibility for maintaining contact and updating information with the government service.

In short, mediation is a valuable tool for families of children with special needs. Among other things, it helps parents think through the current circumstances and what may come in the future so that when a new issue arises they are prepared, not only because they have already had similar discussions during mediation, but also because mediation has provided them with some more tools for healthy and productive difficult conversations. And that is good for everyone.

***I am an attorney and mediator, but not a doctor, autism expert, or family therapist. The ideas shared here are based on my personal experience as a parent to autistic children, reading what actual autism experts have to say (including but not limited to Temple Grandin and Steve Silverman), and my professional experience as a mediator.