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Nurturing a child on the spectrum through Divorce

For those of you reading this, and for those of us who live the journey of being a special needs parent. I know you are time poor. Your life is generally split up into five minute blocks, and is made up of frequent and ongoing interruption. Case in point, I was explaining to my husband […]

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For those of you reading this, and for those of us who live the journey of being a special needs parent. I know you are time poor. Your life is generally split up into five minute blocks, and is made up of frequent and ongoing interruption.

Case in point, I was explaining to my husband a few weeks ago why it takes me two hours to watch a thirty minute tv show. This is primarily as I spend every six minutes pausing the remote whilst engaging my son in an exercise of catching Pokémon, or fixing a bleeding nose, or resolving an argument between siblings, or lying in bed holding hands as the day has just been too much to absorb whilst he is experiencing sensory overload. In light of that, I have made this article as succinct as possible.

Having a child who has special needs is challenging. As a Mother with a child who has been diagnosed with Autism and Aspergers, I understand intimately of the challenges that exist when parenting a child who sees and interprets the world differently to most. 

Children on the spectrum are profoundly beautiful. They open up our senses to new experiences, they challenge us to see things we wouldn’t normally see, and to engage in experiences that would normally seem foreign. 

My son is an old soul. A child born well after his time. He speaks as if he was born in the 20s and his interests are questionable for a child of his age. 

His behaviour is both challenging and incredibly perceptive. He senses the shift in my emotions before I have even verbalised that I have had a bad day. During conversation without prompting he will say things that will bring me to tears as a result of how much he notices my own triggers and challenges. 

I am his anchor. His comfort. His cause of contentment and happiness. That also means most of the time he sees me as a form of release so I bear the brunt of his frustration. Ours is a journey filled with time outs, cuddles, bans on electronics, re introduction to electronics, talking, shouting, communicating through drawings, notes and tears of joy and of frustration. It is imperfect, but we do our best and every night before bed we exchange I love you’s no matter how difficult the day has been. 

Some of this is possible for me as I have a co parent. A partner. Someone whose own experience with our son is different to mine. We disagree on many things in the ever changing world of parenting a child on the spectrum, however despite those disagreements we are still a team. A perfectly imperfect united front wanting our child to navigate the terrifying world before him, as peacefully and as supported as possible. 

That is not to say coparenting isn’t hard in this arena. Co Parenting a child with special needs is at times exhausting. The mixture of extreme fatigue, frustration, guilt and the ongoing parental challenge of internal blame all contribute to the recurring arguments that I see in most of my clients and in my own household. 

“He doesn’t listen to me.”

“He doesn’t have the same relationship with me.”

“I am exhausted”

Most of the time relief comes for a short period of time and then the familiar wave of chaos returns and the cycle of fatigue and self-blame starts again. Life becomes filled with doctors’ appointments, specialist appointments, blood tests, therapies and it goes on. 

For many of my friends their journey is one which has been undertaken solo. No co parent. No co-pilot. To those people, to my friends parenting children solo you truly are warriors. I continue to be in awe of your resilience, your dedication and your commitment to your children. As a Divorce Lawyer I often speak to my friends about their journey into single parenthood and what it’s like to assist your special child through the stages of Divorce. Their journeys mirror my own except theirs is completed solo. 

As a parent of a child of special needs I have also read hours of literature on what children need going through a separation. Collectively, through lived experience and from my own expertise in the area as a Divorce Lawyer,  I have formulated a list of things you should be aware of when considering a separation when you have a child with special needs. 

  1. Routine is everything. This is a known fact for us all, and when the current routine is disrupted by someone leaving the matrimonial home it’s time to create a new one. This is where co-parenting with your former partner is imperative. You must be on the same page in order for this new phase of life to work. There is a time and place for conflict and resentment. It does not belong in a new arrangement concerning access to the children post separation. Be committed to the main goal, transitioning your children through a difficult time which is that they emerge on the other side well-adjusted and happy. See your ex’s journey through a lens of empathy and agree to leave the past in the past. 
  1. When our child was having a difficult day, we were told by our therapist to set up a quiet safe space for him to unwind in. This is his place to retreat. His safe space. For many of you a quiet corner already exists in your home. This safe space should be mirrored in both homes. The connection to a familiar place based on safety and positivity will be the invisible string that connects your children to his two homes. 
  1. Be flexible in your parenting approach. Most parents of children with special needs will tell you that if you aren’t flexible in your expectations of what each day will look like you aren’t doing it right. Things happen. Children’s emotions fluctuate. This is increased when your child is sick, is thrown out of routine or is over stimulated. That is not the time to pull out your parenting agreement and refer to section 2 which says it’s not time to call the other parent, if a request has been made to speak to them, facilitate the phone call. Be flexible in your approach. Understand that plans change and that’s ok. 
  1. Be available to your child. Talk to them and answer their questions. Your new arrangement will take time. Be patient. Know and understand that your child will feel and absorb your emotions without you needing to verbalise them. 
  1. Know that things will be challenging for a while during the transitional phases of separation, and sometimes realistically well after. When that happens engage a professional such as a Mediator to help open the lines of communication. 
  1. See a Psychologist specialising in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and seek their direction about any changes to be made to your child’s routine, homelife and schooling. Try and attend these appointments together as a united unit. 
  1. Be transparent and open with your child’s school about what is going on at home and arrange for extra support to be put in place. Try and ensure this conversation can be had together. 
  1. Reach out for support for yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask before you try and fit anyone else’s. It is so easy to forget to prioritise your own needs when you are busy being a parent. It’s important that you take care of yourself in order to be available to everyone else. 
  1. Reach out for help when you need it. 
  1. Get back to basics when it all becomes too difficult. Sleep. Food. Love. Warm hugs and compromise are essentials when going through a time of deep trauma. 

And most importantly on the journey of separation, in the wise words of Elsa learn to ‘Let it go, Let It go.’

By Cassandra Kalpaxis

Divorce Lawyer and Mediator

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