A new study out of Kennedy Krieger Institute today shows that this statistic is emphatically not correct: "64 percent of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) belong to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents, compared with 65 percent of children who do not have an ASD." According to the website, researchers came up with these figures from " data from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health , they examined a nationally representative sample of 77,911 children, ages 3 to 17."
This a myth that is prevalent on the internet and was even repeated by an Autism Speaks presenter at a conference I attended this spring.
One place this myth is presented is at The News on "The Faces of Autism" by Adam Richardson. Granted this is a fairly old piece, dated May 2008, but it's still relevant, considering the tendency of many writing on autism to engage in quasi-journalism and quoting (and it could be argued the making up of statistics to suit one's purpose). Richardson writes of a mother with an autistic child: "Lindblad says more than 80 per cent of marriages with an autistic child end in divorce. She's living proof."
Does Richardson ascertain the accuracy of the statistic? Nope. He presents it again at the end of the piece and makes no distinction as to its accuracy:
"FACTS AND MYTHS ABOUT AUTISM
• The divorce rate for autistic parents is over 80 per cent.
• Not all autistic individuals possess special skills and genius abilities. Movies like Rainman created a stigma around the disorder. Less than 10 percent possess "savant" abilities shown in the popular Hollywood movie.
• Not all autistic individuals are withdrawn, avoid eye contact and engage in self-injurious behavior. Many are outgoing and work well within groups of children."So, is this 80% a fact or a myth, Mr. Richardson? Do you know or care? Garbage reporting like this seems to be, gasp, epidemic.
Of course, the whole autism ruins marriages and just about everything it touches isn't new. Kristina Chew wrote more than once on the myth of high divorce rates for parents of autistic children back in 2007.
Lisa Jo Rudy at Autism.about.com has also touched on it in the past, writing:
"In short, while I don't honestly believe that 80% of parents with autistic children divorce (because there's no basis for that figure), I certainly DO believe that 80% (or more) are often under extra stress." Rudy covers today's study, noting that Disability Scoop has reported on the study's findings.
Why do people rely on what research shows for one set of numbers and then pull out another set of numbers with no backing? And the comments are even more illuminating and proof that people rely far too often on the availability heuristic. If it's easy to recall, then they believe it is true and representative. It's sort of like the global warming thing: it can't be real because it's colder than usual where I live. Folks, there's a reason scientific evidence trumps anecdote.
*This 80% figure is all over the internet. Susan Leiby throws it out there in an effort to get families assistance by appealing to pity: "80-90% of marriages fail when a child with autism is involved." Another newspaper uncritically runs with the figure, as well: Denise Ryan in The Age writes with no substantiation: "As well, up to 80% of marriages fail in households where a child has an ASD."
It keeps going, though. At TACA, Mary Romaniec writes: "The divorce rate in couples who have a child on the spectrum has been suggested to run as high as 80%."
There seems to be a never-ending parade of folks who like to say statistics say blah blah. I completely get where the Freakonomics authors were coming from as they pointed out the pedophile numbers. Here a minister's wife passes along the bad information: "Statistics estimate that 80 percent of marriages that have a child with autism fail." No statistics don't say that. Another urban legend is born.
This alone ought to make it clear why scientifically-minded folks tend not to rely on Joe Blow saying something. It's usually bullshit.
And sometimes it's bullshit that reaches all the way to governmental bodies, like Australia's Parliament, where Don Randall uses the made-up statistic : "Parents of children with autism face immense challenges. Aside from the care of their child, the resulting stress is enormous, and studies show that up to 80 per cent of
marriages where there is an autistic child fail." Come on, people! Studies say. Statistics show. Where's the actual studies, the real statistics? You heard it and it sounds good. It makes the folks who stay married appear all the more heroic and it makes it so much clearer that autism is a burden that ruins lives, right, if 80% of marriages collapse under the weight of autism?
Oh, look what I found: National Autism Association spreading the bull: "The divorce rate in the autism community is estimated at 80%. In an effort to help keep families together, NAA is developing a new program that will provide marriage counseling to parents of children with autism." I thought they were going to confirm the number before using it?: "NAA is presently conducting a national divorce survey of autism families. Several organizations and news outlets have used the often-quoted autism divorce rate of 80%--NAA hopes to confirm or update that percentage before referencing it in its program materials." And this was all the way back in June 2007. It's been 2.5 years; haven't they figured it out yet? Well, as of this December, they decided to hedge it some and write: "Divorce rates are disproportionately high within the autism community. Government aide is needed for these struggling families." They are, of course, soliciting donations.
Now, interestingly enough, in the NAA's letter to Obama, those divorce rates: "Then again, skyrocketing divorce rates in the autism community really need our attention along with the fact that “autism” is just a word some guy came up with 70 years ago to describe a new, rare mental condition that we’re finding is actually more environmental."
Again, high divorce rates make it so much worse, right? What does all this do? Prove that it's about the blame-game, victimhood, everything and anything but about the autistic individuals.
Age of Autism's loyalists buy into the whole thing kit and kaboodle; some of them even elevating it to 85%.*
What are some realistic estimates of divorce rates?
According to the National Autistic Society, "Siegal (2001) suggests that the divorce rate for couples with a child with autism is the same as that for the rest of the population."
Kevin Leitch weighed in on the subject this past March, and it's well worth the read. Leitch discusses the Easter Seals' survey and its findings that showed that divorce occurred less in parents of children on the spectrum. Leitch also covers the new study at Left Brain Right Brain.
Sobsey's (2004) conclusion regarding divorce and parenting disabled children is worth repeating in full:
"In short, evidence for increased marital discord and divorce rates among parents of children with disabilities is weak and inconsistent. Many more parents of children with disabilities report positive effects on their marriages than report negative effects, and many others recognize that having a child with a disability has little to do with the quality or durability of their marriage relationship.
There may be a very small increase in the incidence of divorce among parents of children with disabilities as compared to the general population, or there may be no increase at all. Findings are weak and inconsistent. Even if a small increase in the incidence of divorce exists, it is probably more likely that this increase is attributable to differences in parents’ attitudes and behaviour rather than any effect of children with disabilities on their parents. Whatever the causal factors, many families with children, including many families of children with disabilities, experience marital discord or divorce. Whether or not having a child with a disability is a contributing factor in some cases, marital discord and divorce are difficult for all family members. Researchers should focus future efforts on understanding how children with disabilities and their families experience divorce and what can be done to assist them during what is often a difficult time in their lives." (p. 80)I sincerely hope that autism organizations get it right from now on, and that this myth ends. It does a tremendous disservice to families.
Siegal, B. (2001). Quality of life: preventing mental separations and legal divorce. What we (don't) know about the effect of autism on divorce, Advocate, 34(2), pp. 26-29. Available from the NAS Information Centre
Sobsey, D. (2004). Marital stability and marital satisfaction in families of children with disabilities: Chicken or egg?. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 32(1), 62-83. Full text available athttp://eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/44/c2/a5.pdf
Web sources have been hyperlinked in the text itself. Siegal's article was not directly referenced, but the quote taken from the NAS's page.
(updated to link to Rudy's coverage of today's study)