Contrary to Myth, Autism Doesn’t Doom Parents to Divorce

And another new study finds that special diet doesn't seem to relieve autism symptoms.

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Learning that a child has autism can be devastating, especially since moms and dads often hear that parents of children with autism have an 80 percent divorce rate. But that high divorce rate, it turns out, is just an urban legend. Parents of a child with autism are no more likely to divorce than are parents in unaffected families.

"We looked and couldn't find where this statistic came from, so we did our own well-conducted survey," says Brian Freedman, the study's lead author and clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Parents often would tell him how upset they were to be getting a "diagnosis of divorce" at the same time their child was diagnosed.

Freedman's report, which will be presented Friday at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia, is based on the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, which polled families of 77,911 children, ages 3 to 17. In families where a child had autism, 64 percent of the children lived with two parents. In families unaffected by autism, 65 percent had a two-parent household.

That's good news, but it's not to say that life is easy for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder. For most families, managing the child's health and treatment takes huge amounts of time and money. "We do know they face these stressors," Freedman says, "but they're quite resilient." Freedman is planning to continue to study these families to figure out what parents of children with autism are doing to successfully manage despite the stress, and share those skills with all families. Although Freedman's study doesn't address diagnosis or treatment, it's just the kind of solid information families need when figuring out how to manage autism.

[Read: Autism Called Urgent Public Health Concern; 1 in 100 Children Affected.]

Another study reported at the Philadelphia conference found that a popular diet that restricts casein, a milk protein, and gluten didn't improve symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorders. It was small, with just 14 children completing the study. But parents, teachers, and researchers could see no difference in the children's behavior when given foods with gluten or casein after having been on the special diet for at least four weeks. The study, by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., will be presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research meeting on Saturday. Children with autism often have gastrointestinal problems, leading some doctors and parents to speculate that dietary changes could reduce gastrointestinal discomfort and improve behavior. Earlier studies have also found no effect from special diets, but parents often try alternative treatments because there are so few empirically tested treatments for autism available.

[Read: What's the Story About Gastrointestinal Problems in Kids With Autism?]

I recently wrote about a study that showed the hormone oxytocin may help social function in people with autism, and also about potential autism treatments being tested in randomized clinical trials, the gold standard for medical research. The more solid data there is on treatments, the more good information parents will have for making choices on treatment for their children. Or even to reassure them that an autism diagnosis doesn't doom a family to divorce.