Family Structure and Autism Spectrum Disorders

In a recent study, Dr. Brian H. Freedman and colleagues found children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to be just as likely as children without ASD to live in households with both their biological or adoptive parents. The media has repeatedly portrayed an increased likelihood of divorce in parents of children with ASD, with reported divorce rates as high as 80 percent. Although this statistic has been used time and again, its origin and supportive research are unknown.  While there have been many speculations about elevated parental divorce rates for children with ASD, very little research has actually been conducted to estimate the frequency of divorce in this population. For this reason, Dr. Freedman and colleagues conducted the first population-based study to explore family structures of children with ASD.

In this study, data from the 2007 Nation Survey of Children’s Health, a population-based telephone survey, was used to investigate family structures of children with ASD as compared to children without ASD. For the purpose of the study, the data was limited to children between the ages of  3 to 17 years. The total sample included 77,911 children, of whom 913 were reported to have current ASD diagnoses. Data for these children were adjusted to reflect the entire population of children in the United States.

Findings revealed no significant difference between the percentage of children with ASD and the percentage of children without ASD (64 percent and 65 percent, respectively) who lived with both their biological or adoptive parents, as opposed to living with single parents, step parents, etc.

Although parents of children with ASD are often faced with heightened emotional and financial stress, the results of this study suggest that they are no more likely to divorce than parents of children without ASD. While such stressors are often considered risk factors for divorce, it is possible that some parents of children with ASD use their marriage as a support system to cope with the challenges they face. At any rate, Dr. Freedman and colleagues’ findings cast serious doubt on the previously reported 80 percent  parental divorce rate in families affected by ASD.


Freedman, B. H., Kalb, L. G., Zablotsky, B., & Stuart, E. A. (in press). Relationship status among parents of children with autism spectrum disorders: A population-based study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1269-y

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