Why talk about divorce in the context of this blog? What does divorce have to do with disability? The answer is simply this: Many still believe that disability has a great deal to do with divorce. While the available data on divorce rates among families of children with disabilities remains somewhat limited, informal and anecdotal reports continue to cite numbers that appear wildly exaggerated — some as high as 75 – 80%. Two recent studies, both credible and informative, suggest a somewhat different picture.
Data related to the sad reality of divorce in America can be interpreted a number of ways, but let’s keep it simple.
According to the most recent US census (2009), most divorces happen early in marriage. If you take the fifth anniversary as a benchmark, a clear trend emerges. In the early 1960s, about 5% of married couples divorced before reaching five years of marriage. By the late 1990s, that number had risen to about 10%.
In 2010, researchers at the Waisman Center, a University Center of Excellence in Disability at the University of Wisconsin, looked at 391 parents of children with autism and 391 similar families with children who did not have a disability. They matched the two groups by age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the age and gender of the children. Parents in both groups were part of two long-running studies that tracked families for decades. They found that parents of children with autism had a nearly 24% chance of divorce, compared to parents in the other group who divorced about 14% of the time. At the time the study was first published, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided a nice synopsis.
Earlier, in a 2007 study at the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center, researchers studied divorce in families of children with Down syndrome compared to families of children with other disabilities and families with no noted disabilities. Again, the findings provided a few surprises.
Divorce rates among families of children with Down syndrome were actually found to be lower than in the other two groups.
- Down syndrome – 7.6%
- No disability – 10.8%
- Other disabilities – 11.2%
Factors such as age at the time of marriage, income, and education affect all three categories without statistical significance. And, just like the general population, mothers and fathers of children with Down syndrome were much more likely to divorce if they were younger, had not graduated from high school, or lived in a rural area.
One finding common to both studies was the issue of when in the marriage the divorce occurred.
As mentioned early, divorces in the general population tend to occur early in marriages. In fact, there is a prominent clustering in the first two years. Among families of children with disabilities, there is less of this early clustering, but the incidence of divorce tends to continue later into family life.
The studies do little to address the undeniable impact of divorce on family life, of course, but artificially inflated numbers do not speak the truth about the issue. Worse, they infer that children with disabilities are, at least to some extent, stress causing elements that family structures strain against. No child deserves the burden of that myth.
Learn more about this topic by reading Families and Disability.
Filed under: BethesdaBlog 2012, Innovation Tagged: | children, disabilities, Disability, divorce, divorce rates, divorced, down syndrome, families, family, fathers, marriage, mothers, parents, waisman center