Ron L. Deal
& Stephanie C. Holmes
Originally published in Autism Parenting Magazine, June 2016 (Issue 48, page 29). Used with permission.
Looking back Carol, a mother with an
AS/ASD (Autism Spectrum/Autism Spectrum Disorder) child, could easily describe
how hard being a single parent was; she prayed for years for a loving husband
to help her raise her ASD son and his N-T (neuro-typical) older sister. Now,
remarried and trying to blend a stepfamily of six, she wonders if staying
single would have served her children better.
Rachel, Carol’s 12 year-old daughter
and big sister to Andy, her 9 year-old ASD child, really liked Jerry at first;
and she was glad to see her mom dating again. As the big sister in a single
parent home, Rachel had grown accustomed to helping mom care for Andy. She also
worried about her mother who was abandoned by Rachel’s father over conflicts in
caring for Andy and who, therefore, was essentially alone to provide
financially for the family and manage the home. Jerry made her mom smile and
laugh again; Rachel loved seeing that.
Eventually, however, the initial
lift brought to Carol and the home fell prey to the tasks of integrating two
families. Jerry brought two children to the marriage, as well; a 13 year-old
daughter and 10 year-old son (both neuro-typical or N-T). He shares custody with
his ex-wife and the kids split their time between the two homes. It turns out
that Jerry and Carol did much of their dating while his kids were at their
mom’s house, so no one quite anticipated what the relationships between the
kids would be once the wedding took place and everyone moved in together.
Part-time “getting to know you” activity became a full-time clash of realities.
Merging two families is nearly
always stressful for stepfamilies; they are combining cultures, values, loss
narratives, parenting styles, financial situations, and daily living
preferences all while trying to learn to love and trust after having been
wounded and scarred by the past. In the best of situations, this naturally
creates stress. Add a special needs child and parenting demands to the list and
stress increases exponentially.
Jerry assumed that because his son,
Tyler, and Andy were so close in age they would enjoy each other and play well
together. He wanted them to share a room together but Carol insisted that Andy
keep his own room in order to maintain continuity for Andy in the midst of
family change. Jerry, now Andy’s stepdad, became aggravated that Andy gets “so
many unfair privileges.” But his frustration escalated to fear after about a
year when his son started dragging his feet about coming over for visitation.
When Jerry asked Tyler why he said he’d rather stay at his mom’s than have to
deal with Andy.
Meanwhile, things between Carol and
Rachel were not good with Jerry’s daughter, Jennifer. Stepmothers and
stepdaughters commonly have tension while bonding, but Carol and Jennifer’s
relationship was complicated even more by Andy. And then there were the differences
between girls. In caring for her brother over time, Rachel had matured beyond
her years; Carol couldn’t understand why Jennifer wasn’t the same. Jennifer
seemed self-absorbed in comparison. Needless to say the two sides—mother and
daughter vs. Jennifer—remained disconnected and struggled to enjoy each other.
Like salt in a wound, these
stepfamily issues just added stress to the never-ending emotional, educational,
and physical care of Andy. As before Carol hoped her ex-husband (Andy’s father)
would step in and help but he declined most of his visitation time and when he
did take Andy and Rachel for the weekend he refused to honor Carol’s structure
for their son. Andy would get out of sync and spread the distress on the rest
of the family upon returning home.
Carol was at a loss. She kept thinking that
maybe she should have stayed single.
In addition to renewing their
spiritual values, Carol and Jerry will find hope for their family when they
merge what they are learning about healthy stepfamily living and effective ASD
parenting. There must be growth on both sides and a stronger couple unity in
how they manage their home, but in the meantime, they should expect stress and
A person on the autism spectrum
(AS/ASD) has rigid routines, a restrictive and/or intense focus, struggles to
connect interpersonally and emotionally, may have behavioral challenges, and
does not respond well to change. Growing as a stepfamily involves a huge
amount of change. It is no wonder, then, that many clinicians believe the
divorce rate of ASD blended families to be higher than other stepfamilies. To
avoid another family disruption, couples must get proactive in managing their
home and protecting their marriage.
Help for ASD Stepfamilies
A thorough exploration of ASD
stepfamily dynamics would require an entire book. However, below is some
practical help for commonly reported dilemmas. For more on healthy stepfamily
living read my (Ron) articles or books including The Smart Stepfamily and The
Smart Stepfamily Marriage; for more on ASD families read Stephanie’s book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How
Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith.
Perspective for Stepparents
You knew when you stepped into the
picture that caring for an ASD child meant carrying all the responsibilities
and obligations of parenthood, however, you may not have fully understood what
that meant until after the wedding; experiencing AS/ASD on a daily basis will
certainly open your eyes. It is okay to learn as you go; but learn you must.
Keep an open mind; ask lots of questions; and make it your goal to unify your
marriage around ASD matters.
Let us add here that we applaud your
willingness to give and love in this way. You are taking on a complex family
system (and the autistic child may not fully understand or appreciate that) and
are doing so by choice. This is a heroic task and we commend you for it.
In many dissolved AS/ASD families one
biological parent has left the marriage and their parenting responsibilities to
avoid stressors or responsibilities of having a special needs child. (Ironically,
once you step in, they may now fight the structure or protocols you and your spouse
put in place to support the AS/ASD child.) Don’t feel obligated to make-up for
all of their mistakes or fill all the gaps they left behind. Just be who you
need to be and work in concert with your spouse (they are the expert on their
ASD child) to determine your best role. Talk with your children and educate
them about what is needed regarding structure in the home.
Here are some additional
you are still dating, move slowly toward marriage. Carol and Jerry
inadvertently segregated their dating time and didn’t allow all of the children
time to adjust to each other or the realities of an ASD parenting situation.
This common mistake led to a huge blind spot that blind-sided them after the
wedding. Instead, take time to learn about AS/ASD while dating and share both
what you’re learning and experiencing with your kids (if you have them). As you
increasingly consider marriage, be proactive to get all of the children
together (to the extent you can) in order to consider the family mix. What
happens when they are together should carry a lot of weight. In other words,
getting them together is not just a “play-date”, but it should be part of your
decision whether you continue dating, marry, or go your separate ways. If you
can’t be a family, think long and hard about getting married.
slowly with transitions or big changes. Getting married is a big
transition. But for an ASD child, so is adding the stepparent’s furniture to
the home, or changing a Saturday afternoon routine to go see a new
step-grandmother. Trust your spouse. Major and sudden changes may cause
behavioral or emotional meltdowns and thus disruption to your family. AS/ASD
persons can learn new transitions but move slowly.
your bonding expectations. By definition AS/ASD persons have issues
connecting relationally. This will be the same with you. Don’t take it
personally. Also, he or she may say socially inappropriate things when stressed
like, “I don’t like you”, “I don’t want you here”, “I don’t like those new kids—they
are not my brothers and sisters”, or “I want my dad”, etc.. These are
expressions of difficulty with transition. Do not try to force yourself or your
children into a relationship. Just focus on walking through the open doors you
do have. As the child adjusts to the new normal and learns to trust you, (s)he will
let you know when the door opens wider.
with intentionality. A great way to bond with the AS/ASD child is through
their special interests. For example, if they are into weather and weather
patterns, learn about that and try to converse or do activities around that
topic. Special interests are good access points for building relationships.
Tolerance. Learn why the AS/ASD child behaves the way they do. Understanding
that their brain is not neurologically wired the same as other N-T kids is
vital. Learn all you can about their cognitive capacity and how you can work
Bridge the Gaps in Your Marriage
In our book The Smart Stepmom, Laura Petherbridge and I (Ron) outline how
children respond differently to biological parents and stepparents in blended
families. Even when there isn’t an AS/ASD child in the home, the contrast is
striking. For example, when biological parents make a mistake their children
are quick to offer them forgiveness; stepparents receive quick judgement and
children are easily angered at them. Biological parents are granted “insider
status”, get automatic love, approval, and trust, and are considered moral
authorities. Stepchildren are deciding if and how much to love, approve of,
trust, and listen to their stepparent—and in the beginning consider them
“outsiders” who have to earn their way in. These relationship differences also
impact how the adult views and responds to the child. For example, biological
parents may inherently trust their child’s explanation for how the milk got
spilled while the stepparent wonders if there’s more to the story.
There are even more differences when
the biological parent has an AS/ASD child.
- If the
AS/ASD child has had difficulties with other adult caregivers the biological
parent may be fiercely protective of the child; the stepparent may feel this is
too harsh and controlling.
biological parent has gained knowledge of AS/ASD through the years; in the
beginning the stepparent is starting at ground zero and, therefore, at a
disadvantage to know how to contribute to parenting.
biological parent knows what triggers the child and what causes meltdowns; the
stepparent may view meltdowns as manipulative misbehavior.
biological parent budgets for therapy/treatment/resources; the stepparent may
not anticipate those types of financial obligations.
biological parent knows where the child started and has watched his/her progress;
the stepparent only sees where the child is now and cannot appreciate their
- In addition,
biological siblings are used to the AS/ASD child and accommodating to their
needs is embraced; stepsiblings are caught off guard and might feel violated by
how much life is oriented around the AS/ASD child’s needs.
Here are some suggestions to help
parents and stepparents bridge these gaps:
your feelings without placing blame or trying to apply simple solutions
(which the AS/ASD parent knows will not work). In the first couple years we
suggest the family adapt to the routines already in place for the AS/ASD child;
changes can come eventually, but should come slowly and only after much
discussion between the couple. Stepparents will likely be making many
adjustments and sacrifices on behalf of the needs of the AS/ASD child, so
biological parents should be compassionate with their frustrations. They
should, also, strive to over communicate about family structure to help the
stepparent and stepsiblings adapt well.
and dine. We also suggest couples make time to date one another—and not
allow their couple time to be invaded by problem discussions related to the
AS/ASD child. Reserve a business meeting for that! Date nights need to be about
strengthening your “usness” so love and trust foster a safe place to nurture a
newly formed family and its complications.
some time. Each person in the home needs a hobby. The special needs child
takes a lot of energy; you need time alone for self-care so you can have the
energy you need to take care of the child. Everyone needs a break! N-T siblings,
especially, need an autism-free zone where they can get a break and be the
focus of attention from parents. Autism cannot be the only identity of the family.
Patience. It will take time to learn about the needs of the child and to
merge your family. Find outside support (e.g., a support group or local church
ministry) and stay determined to the process.
Organizational Skills. Structure and order is a must for the AS/ASD family.
If that is not your forte as a parent, work at it!
the importance of spiritual strength. I (Stephanie) don’t know where I
would be without my faith in God and prayer. Overcoming my “Why did you do this
to me, God?” struggle took lots of prayer from myself and others, but now I can
see the gift our family has.
neglect the child who is not special needs. Make a strong effort to engage
all your children so they don’t feel neglected and become resentful of the
special needs’ child.
joy in small victories. Not everything is a setback, not everything has to
be worked on now. When there is an accomplishment, no matter how small, celebrate
it. Joy is contagious. Joy inspires hope.
toward “prevention”. Study your child and try to prevent meltdowns instead
of always doing meltdown recovery. This does not mean to give in at all costs,
but when going to a new environment, for example, anticipate what might set the
child off. What can you do to make him or her successful in the situation and
not compromise the whole family night?
to be flexible. Things change; plans change; life happens. You cannot
predict every eruption that may happen with a spectrum child so learn to be
flexible and adapt.
Finding Reward in the Journey. The average stepfamily journey consists of
a few predictable steps: First, a couple falls in love and decides to marry.
Second, just as when two rivers merge, the new stepfamily wrestles through a
number of “white water” adjustments as they figure out “how to be family” with
one another. And, third, the once fractured but now bonded family enjoys smooth
rewarding waters brought about by their hard work and determination. In
general, a typical stepfamily needs 5-7 years to begin experiencing rewards
(some families take longer).
Likewise, AS/ASD stepfamilies will
move through similar stages, but given the complexities and various layers of
an AS/ASD child the intensity of the rapids can be even greater and the length
of time required to smooth out the white-water torrents may increase. Yet, it
can be done. We hope that AS/ASD stepfamilies will be encouraged; finding
family harmony is possible, but it will require intentionality and determination.
Ron L. Deal is president of
Smart Stepfamilies™, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a popular conference
speaker, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s, books, and curriculum for
stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), The Smart
Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage
(with David H. Olson). Ron is one of the most widely read authors on
blended family living in the country. His one-minute radio feature FamilyLife Blended can be heard daily on
stations nationwide and online. Learn more at FamilyLife.com/blended.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A.,
is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism
Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was
diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping
families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs
child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype
consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens,
and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a
Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores
her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD
researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism
/Asperger's Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face. Learn more at www.counselorstephanieholmes.com