How Does an Empty Nest Affect Parents of Autistic Young Adults?

The transition from child to adult is a profound one, for both child and parent. As adolescents mature and develop their own identity, they yearn for independence and often find it through higher education or a career. Inevitably, the child becomes an adult and moves out of the family home. This can be an emotionally challenging time for mothers and fathers. But for parents of autistic children, the change can be quite dramatic. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share a unique bond with their children. The behavioral, physical, and communication impairments that individuals with ASD experience can often result in a residential custodial relationship with a parent that lasts well into adulthood. The responsibilities that these parents face, sometimes with no end in sight, can add immense of amounts of stress to the intimate adult relationships of the parents. Until recently, few studies have looked at how this shifts when ASD children grow up and leave home.

To address this question, Sigan L. Hartley of the Waisman Center and Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently conducted a study that examined the level of marital harmony in 199 mothers of children with ASD. Hartley followed the mothers for 7 years, during which the children transitioned from living at home to living independently away from their parents. The mothers were assessed for levels of marital happiness based on the symptom severity of the child, the household income, education level of the mother, and other children with disabilities.

Hartley found that the more significant the behavioral impairment of their child, the less satisfied the mothers were with their marriages. The most satisfied mothers were those with high household incomes, close mother-child bonds, and the least amount of ASD-related behavior issues. Surprisingly, the transition from caregiver to empty nester had no effect on marital satisfaction for the women in this study. Hartley said, “Interventions aimed at managing the behavior problems of adolescents and adults with ASDs may help strengthen parents’ marital relationship.”

Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Baker, J. K., Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J. S. (2012). Marital satisfaction and life circumstances of grown children with autism across 7 years. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029354

Related articles:
The Gravity of Autism, Part 1
Surviving and Thriving With Autism: 4 Rules for Sanity
How Do I Know I Can Count on my Partner?

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Darwin

    August 16th, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    It’s as if when the kids fly the nest the parents no longer feel as if they have anything that bonds them or holds them together.For many of these families with children with special needs, this is the only thing that they have had holding them together all this time is the child. When that last link is gone that is when so many of those relationships actually fall apart. It isn’t because they fall out of love or are angry, it is simply that in many cases they have nothing meaningful to say to one another anymore. Really quite sad considering the past that so many of them have had together.

  • Hollis

    August 16th, 2012 at 1:44 PM

    I have always had this image that families with children who have disabilities must be so close and tight knot because without that those kinds of problems would be sure to out a serious strain on a marriage and the family as a whole.

    I know that there is a lot of pressure involved in these situations, because it is hard emotionally not to mention financially when you have a family member who is diabled in some way.

    However, I know that some of these families have to be some of the happiest families in the world because it seems that many times it is those hwo have had to struggle the most who have the greatest appreciation for love and their family.

    Adversity can be so challenging but also a way to open your eyes to just how lucky we are to have the family that we have. We are given what we have for a reason, and to learn from it is to grow both spiritually and emotionally.

  • blake

    August 16th, 2012 at 6:59 PM

    hmm I would have thought the empty nest situation would put the parents under stress and anxiety..but I think one positive for them from this is that they now believe and know that their autistic child can now stay independently and it could in fact offset the negativity that comes from an empty nest situation.

  • Zaneiac

    August 17th, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    If you have a secure marriage, although having an autistic child will be a strain, it is the strong marriages which will continue to do well and stay together. These are families who very much know how to work together through thick and thin, and having a handicapped child will not necessarily undermine that relationship.

    But on the flip side, I do very much worry about many families who seem to make this their only focal point in life. There has to be life beyond autism, and I do think that there are some families forget that sometimes and fail to nurture the others aspects of the marriage that need to be fed and watered so that it will grow.

  • wilson

    August 17th, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    Is it any different with these parents than it is with any others who are faced with a child leaving home for the first time? This is always going to feel daunting because even couples with healthy kids don’t always maintain the right amount of intimacy over the years because they have always focused so much of their time and their energy on the kids. Sometimes when the kids are all gone, I have known couples who then look at each other and wonder what in the heck they are supposed to do with this person now. However, this is a great time to get refocused on your marriage and taking it back to the point where it used to be good again. Reconnect, talk, date, do all of those things that you have neglected for so long.

  • Chas

    August 18th, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    For some marriages the only thing holding them together is the children.
    When the children elave then the marriage is over because the tape holding them together has been pulled away.

  • Julie

    August 18th, 2012 at 8:11 PM

    I am one of those parents with an autistic child who also has Down Syndrome. She will probably never leave home, so I don’t suspect we’ll ever be empty nesters. One of the issues that exists is that Autism takes away from you and most of the time, there are no resources to draw upon. For example, we have been trying for months to get a replacement caregiver, and it has truly been a nightmare. My husband has had to take a few hours of personal time every week just so I can get a break. Add to that a second or more child/children with special needs, and you get NO time to yourself. I am up tonight for a while, but usually I have to go to bed at the same time as my second child just to get a full night’s rest. Kids with Autism are notorious for not sleeping well at all. When you finally get them down to bed, you collapse at the end of the night. Meanwhile more often than not, family is not around or is unwilling to help. Believe me, autism families would LOVE to do something other than autism but the help and resources, financially and physically are just not there. We’re pretty much screwed.

  • lloyd b

    August 19th, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    Funny how we spend so much time preparing these young people for the reality of what life will be like when they fly the nest, but spend relatively little time addressing how that’s going to effect those of us who are left at home. This is one of those things that I think needs to be addressed before the actual event when you have a clear mind, and not wait until they are gone to begin preparing for life without the kids at home. It is always easier to have a game plan before rather than after the fact.

  • Martika

    August 20th, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    I don’t know what would be worse thm leaving home or conversely facing the fact that they may live in your home for their lifetimes. I know that may sound a little harsh, but can you imagine how dauting it may seem from the get go once you learn that your child may not be able to support and take care of himself as he gets older, that you will be the primary caregiver for as far as you can see? I know that every parent loves their child and that for most of us if this is the way it is then we will embrace that role with gusto and always care for the child. But I also know that we kind of think in the back of our minds about what life will be like when the kids are gone again, what will you and the husband do to enjoy those later years of your marriage? For parents of some kids with disabilities they know that this may not be what awaits them, and that can be scary. It’s not that it takes away in any form how much you love your children, but it does maybe take away some of those long planned dreams that you will have to now put on hold.

  • Diane

    July 28th, 2015 at 4:23 PM

    Thank you for your summary, you said exactly what I was feeling. My daughter will be 30 next week and I have to help her everyday. I have to help with showers and bowel programs. I love her so much but am tired. We do receive support from the county but the personal assistance staff have been very unreliable and I am always the back up. I still work full time and am wanted to be alone with no demands. I just am really hurting right now,

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