Based on statistics, families with special needs children tend to divorce at a higher rate than other families.   Given the added complexity that can accompany special needs situations, divorcing parents need to take particular care when determining the best course of action for their family. 

The breadth of conditions that can fall under special needs means that there is so single approach that will work for all families.  However, it is clear that a process such as mediation or collaborative divorce—one that allows divorcing parties to maintain control of decision-making- is a better option than one that cedes this control to the courts.  Remember, not every lawyer or judge is well trained to deal with special needs kids.

“Special needs” is a term that applies to wide range of medical, developmental, emotional and learning needs.   The specific needs of your child will drive the unique plan that you will need to develop for your family.   Examples include the following: 

  • If your child has cognitive delays or processing issues, make sure you provide information in a way that they will understand.  A 12 year old with moderate developmental delays will need calendars and visual reminders to understand the concept of time, whereas a neurotypical 12 year old can be told, “You will stay with me on these days and your father on those days.”
  • If your child has a chronic illness, you will need to be especially mindful of having a framework for making decisions about medical issues.  Research shows that kids with chronic health issues, have increased behavior problems when there is higher family conflict, negative life events and lower family cohesion. 
  • If your child has a medical or educational special need, you want to minimize the conflict and make a thoughtful plan about needs and responsibilities moving forward.   For example, if you cannot be in the same room as your ex, then you should trade off appointments with the specialists so that you can both develop a relationship with them and hear the important information directly.

These examples are meant to highlight that there are both logistical and emotional issues to think through for your child.  If there is a medical condition, can specialized equipment be available in two homes or transported easily?  If there is an educational issue, do both parents want to attend IEPs and weigh in on educational decisions?  If your child has emotional issues, how will transitions be handled and how is your child most easily soothed?

As you move forward, you should also take advantage of the resources that are available to you. Think about the resources available to you in planning for your child’s care during and after the divorce.  Teachers, therapists and medical professionals can be a great resource when designing your parenting plan.  Use your child’s professional team as the experts they are in his or her specialized care.

Helping a special needs child cope and thrive can be challenging under the best of circumstances and divorce can add another layer of complexity.  However, if parents can work together to develop a co-parenting plan that supports their child, take advantage of available resources and work together during this difficult time; they can help their child continue to meet their potential.