Co-Parenting a Child On the Spectrum

When our child is one with special needs or is a child on the spectrum, additional attention and care are often required. Add in parents living in separate households due to a divorce and the efforts and considerations multiply.

Parenting may be one of the most difficult things one does in life. After giving birth to a child, we are not provided with an instruction manual. In fact, we are provided with minimal direction at all to cope with the many unexpected things that inevitably happen.

Being responsible and acting in our children’s best interests, regardless of how we feel about an ex-spouse, is crucial to the well-being of our children. With no perfect set of rules or step-by-step instructions, it may not be easy. But, by keeping in mind some general guidelines, creating positive outcomes for all is achievable.

Parenting Time with a Child On the Spectrum

Mother with autistic daughter

The quantity and the quality of time spent with your child matters. Developing and maintaining a quality relationship with your child requires specific and regular time. While the amount of time and when it occurs matter, perhaps even more important is the quality of that time.

Our children need us to be with them not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Staying attuned to their needs and emotionally involved in what’s going on with them. Holding an interest in the many aspects of their lives and staying actively involved in their day-to-day routines.

During your parenting time, look to maintain and encourage existing relationships and routines with extended family members, friends, school, and other activities. It is important for your child as it adds to their feelings of security and sense of stability.

Do not involve your children in adult issues, nor use them as pawns or messengers in communication with your ex. Instead, stick with their normal routines and relationships, and shelter them from the problems and responsibilities of their parents.

Strive for Consistency

Since children with Asperger’s prefer routine and structure, working with your ex-spouse to maintain as much consistency between households will greatly benefit your child. While it’s not a must to maintain exact schedules, practices, and rules between households, the fewer deviations, the better it will be, especially with younger children. 

Differing perspectives and flexibility help children learn to act and adjust, but understanding they face similar sets of routines and expectations at each home is beneficial and less confusing for them.

A child on the spectrum typically does well with ‘rules’ and consistent ones for important things like schoolwork, hygiene, and dis-allowed activities, between households, will make it, so your kids don’t have to remember which set is for which home.

Additionally, similar systems of rewards for good behavior and consequences for broken rules, no matter under whose roof they occurred under are helpful. If your child earned extra computer time for good behavior or lost TV privileges for poor behaviors while with your ex, continue to uphold those rewards or consequences at your home, and your ex should do the same.

Stay Involved

Both parents need to be involved in all major decisions. Honest, open, and straightforward communication about your child’s well-being is essential. Your ex-spouse and you will need to set aside any differences between you to ensure you are acting in your child’s best interest.

You owe it to your child to take an active role in decisions affecting their physical and mental health, as well as their education and social learning.

Attend medical and health-related appointments together or alternate attending meetings, keeping the other informed about all discussions that took place with doctors, dentists, and therapists.

Let your child’s school and teachers know about your child’s living arrangements. Communicate with your ex about class schedules, homework, extracurricular activities, and friends. Attend parent-teacher conferences, IEP meetings, and school events to stay informed and involved. It’s important for you to participate in school matters and not rely on your ex to always keep you up-to-date.

Be on the lookout for signs of stress in your child. Anxiety and depression are quite common with kids on the spectrum. Healthy communication with your ex-spouse, as well as your child’s teachers and caregivers, will allow you all to address issues more quickly and easily if and when they arise.

Work Through Disagreements

You are divorced for a reason; thus it’s highly likely you will disagree with your ex sooner or later. To help you find resolution at these times, keep the following in mind.

Remain respectful and considerate, especially in front of the children. It will likely be very damaging for your child to witness the conflict between you parents.

Continuous conflict is shown to damage a child’s well-being. Control your emotions and respectfully discontinue any volatile discussions with your ex until there is a more opportune time to talk.

To resolve any disagreements, continue discussions with your ex, without your child around, until you can reach an agreement. If you cannot do that alone, enlist the help of a mediator or therapist.

Pick your battles and compromise. Key issues or rules such as medical or educational matters are a must to work through but learn to compromise on things that aren’t as important to you, so you have the energy to stand your ground on the ones that are.

Find Support and Maintain Your Own Wellbeing

Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your child. Your child relies on you, and unless you take care of your own physical, emotional and mental health, you will not be able to care for them adequately.

Family, friends, and support groups are crucial in helping you deal with your emotions and uncomfortable feelings, such as anger, jealousy, or profound sadness. As you transition into your parenting role rely on your support system or look to more professional sources of support should you need it. Anger management programs, parenting classes, or formal group therapy sessions exist to help you work through difficult times and learn necessary skills to manage life healthily.

The needs of a child on the spectrum evolve. As your child grows, it is important that you continue to educate yourself about their changing needs. Talk with their health care providers, school administrators, teachers, and counselors to stay abreast of any resources available to help you meet them.

Your needs and those of your ex will likely also change as time goes on. Schedules may need to be adjusted as your child ages or progress through certain stages of development. Be prepared to alter or tailor parenting time to meet the needs of your child or the unique circumstances of the families in your or your ex-spouse’s household.

No matter what, keep the following important factors in mind: 1) your child needs as consistent of a schedule and routine as possible; 2) your child needs both a high quantity and a high-quality relationship with each parent, and 3) your child needs to be insulated from any adult parenting issues.

Communication is vital between you and your ex. While you may not have succeeded at it as a couple, it is an absolute requirement that you do so as divorced co-parents. Find a way to do it effectively and get help if you need. Your child deserves it.

Sources and recommended resources