Parents are generally most vulnerable to divorce when their kids are young, but for parents of children with autism that susceptibility continues into adolescence and adulthood, new research suggests.

In a longitudinal study looking at parents of 406 individuals with autism and a similar number of parents with only typically developing kids, researchers found that the likelihood of divorce was the same for both groups up until about age 8. But at that point, couples raising children with autism continued to experience a heightened risk of splitting up, while the odds of other couples parting ways began to drop, researchers report in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

“Typically, if couples can survive the early child-rearing years, parenting demands decrease and there is often less strain on the marriage,” says Sigan Hartley, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of the study. “However, parents of children with autism often continue to live with and experience high parenting demands into their child’s adulthood, and thus marital strain may remain high in these later years.”

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Hartley and her colleagues followed families with children ages 14 to 57 starting in 1998 and continuing until 2004. Ultimately, they found that parents of children with autism were more likely to divorce over time, with 23 percent of couples parting ways versus about 14 percent of couples whose children did not have autism.

This latest study comes in contrast to rumors that have persisted for years suggesting a divorce rate as high as 80 percent among parents of children on the autism spectrum.

However, it suggests a slightly different picture than that reflected in another study on autism and divorce that was conducted by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and presented in May. That study found nearly the same odds of divorce, with 64 percent of children with autism having married parents compared to 65 percent of children without autism.

Hartley says the reason for the seemingly different results may lie in the age groups studied. The research at Kennedy Krieger focused on children ages 3 to 17 whereas many of the children in Hartley’s study were in their 30s and 40s.

In both cases, however, researchers point out that the vast majority of parents remain married, whether or not they had a child with autism.

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