Parents of children with autism are no more likely to divorce than parents of typically developing children, a first-of-its-kind study indicates.

For years, rumors persisted about divorce rates as high as 80 percent among parents of children with autism. But on Wednesday researchers unveiled the results of the largest study ever conducted examining the issue and said those exorbitant numbers are simply unfounded.

Instead, results show that among children with autism, 64 percent have married parents compared to 65 percent of children who don’t have autism.

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“Families have this really awful experience finding out not only that their child has autism but also that their marriage might be in trouble,” says the study’s lead author Brian Freedman, the clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “While there are indeed stressors in parenting a child with autism, it doesn’t necessarily result in the family breaking up more often than would occur in another family.”

The research, which will be presented later this week at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia, is based on data from telephone interviews with parents of 77,911 children ages 3 to 17 across the country which were conducted through the government’s 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. Of those interviewed for the survey, about 1,000 had a child with autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified, Freedman says.

The likelihood of divorce did not appear to be impacted by the severity of a child’s autism, but children who had autism in addition to a psychiatric disorder such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or behavioral issues were more likely to have parents who divorced, the results indicate.

The study findings come as no surprise to Diane Smith, a marriage and family therapist in Woodland Hills, Calif., who long suspected that divorce rates among parents of those with special needs were overinflated.

“I don’t see parents divorce more because they have a child with autism,” says Smith, who devotes about half of her practice to parents of individuals with disabilities. “I don’t think it’s a death sentence for the marriage. I think it comes down to how couples deal with any stressor.”

And learning more about those coping skills that help parents of children with autism stay together is the next step for Freedman and his colleagues.

“We can now work to identify what they’re doing to be able to stay together given that we do know that they face these tremendous pressures,” he says.

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