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The Other 'D' Word: Divorce and How to Get Through It

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

The other D-word. Divorce. It’s a word we hate to think about, or even say. It’s not something we think will ever happen to us. Sure it happens to other people. Chances are someone close to you has been divorced. You’ve probably been cautioned about the high incidence of divorce among families with a child with a disability. But you thought to yourself, that won’t happen to me. My spouse and I are committed to each other and to our children. Divorce is for other people, not for me. I would never let that happen.

Well, that’s the way I thought. Until one day it did happen to me and to my family.

And it very well may happen to you too.

Or maybe it already has.

If you are in the minority of couples with a child with Down Syndrome, Autism, IDD, or other exceptional needs whose marriage has and will withstand the stresses and challenges of raising a child with special needs, congratulations and I wish the best for you and your family.

Marital Stresses

But sadly this is not the case for the majority of families with a child with special challenges. There are often other underlying issues or problems in the marriage that are the drivers of the divorce, so I’m not trying to say divorce is inevitable when there’s a child with a disability in the picture. However, having a child with extra needs can contribute to the stresses a couple is facing, especially when there are other issues at play.

What To Do When Divorce is the Best Solution

So what is a couple to do when they decide divorce is the right choice for their situation? Sometimes it might be a mutual decision and sometimes it’s one party initiating the divorce. Either way, there are things that should be considered and done, so that the children and their needs are taken care of in the best way possible.

1 First, treat all parties with respect, and give as much of a heads up to the spouse and to the children as possible that transitions are coming, so that they can prepare mentally and emotionally for the changes that will be happening to the family. If divorce is not a mutual decision, at least the desire to divorce should be communicated to the other party; ideally the spouse should be told first, and given the opportunity to discuss, understand, and process the situation, before huge changes are made, such as leaving the family home. For the spouse and neurotypical children, this may include conversations about intentions and plans going forward. For neurodiverse children, this can be presented as a “Social Story,” using language, pictures (actual photographs and/or picture symbols), and positive language, to depict what is happening to the family, and what the child can expect in terms of what will be different and what will remain the same or predictable.

I'm thrilled to introduce Mary Ann Hughes to our community. In fact, she is already part of our community. She bravely shares her experiences and learnings as a family with Special Needs who is navigating the complexities of divorce. I think you'll find her advice helpful and comforting. -Steve Friedman

2 Second, consider how/when the child will spend time with each parent. Often it helps to minimize transitions, so think about what would be least disruptive to the neurodiverse child while balancing the schedules and commitments of each parent. One parent may not have been as involved in the day-to-day care of the child so it’s important for both parents to work together to get up to speed and comfortable with what they need to know to address medical, behavioral, and other needs of the child.

3 Third, consider how assets will be divided and how the child’s needs will be financially handled, not just in the short term, but also after they turn 18. Disagreements about financial divisions and child support are among the biggest reasons for conflict and expense in special needs divorce proceedings so if each party can be as understanding and generous as possible in the early stages of divorce, it will likely save money and emotional energy during divorce and lead to better relationships between all the parties post-divorce.

4 Fourth, find experts knowledgeable in special needs divorce to help with all these aspects and more. There are Certified Special Needs Divorce Coaches who can help families navigate the complexities of divorce involving a child with a disability, help parents identify and advocate for the needs of the child, and help parents focus on what is important in the divorce process. It often takes a village to get through divorce, especially when long-term planning for a child with complex needs is a key consideration. Members of the divorce team might include a family law attorney, estate planning attorney, financial planner, medical and/or mental health professionals, as well as a divorce coach, to provide important expertise in building a case so that a child not capable of self-support can be taken care of and protected in the short and long term. The wording of the divorce decree, special needs trusts, and other documents need to be done correctly to maintain the child’s eligibility for government benefits and make sure the child’s needs continue to be addressed.

5 And lastly, keep the focus on the kids. Too many divorcing couples fight over things that are not healthy or productive. Rather than have emotions drive decisions, try to think of divorce as a legal and financial transaction. How would you act if this was a business deal at work? How would you treat those involved? By acting as professionally as possible with your soon-to-be ex-spouse and your divorce team your process and results will tend to be more positive. By jointly focusing on how to address the child’s needs the other issues in divorce hopefully become easier to address. It’s important to remember divorce is a finite process (although it may seem like it will never end when you’re in the midst of it), but the parenting responsibilities of a child with a disability will never end. So the better co-relationship you can maintain during and after divorce, the better it will be for all involved.

You will get through this, and so will your children. Stay Strong!

Help is Available

If you or someone you know needs help navigating the overwhelm and complexities of a special needs divorce, Mary Ann Hughes of Special Family Transitions is here to help. I unexpectedly faced divorce after 21 years of marriage, and I made advocating for the needs of my children on opposite ends of the autism spectrum the focus of my divorce. I ended up with a great result for my family, so I decided to make it my mission to help other families facing similar challenges. I started Special Family Transitions and became a Special Needs Divorce Coach to save families with a child with complex needs time, money, and emotional energy when going through a divorce. Please reach out at to discuss how I can best support you. I offer personalized coaching, a short, low-priced course with a framework and tips on successfully advocating for a child in a special needs divorce (, and be sure to follow Special Family Transitions on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for helpful information and resources.

BIO: Mary Ann Hughes

Mary Ann Hughes, founder of Special Family Transitions, is a Certified Divorce Coach committed to helping families through the overwhelming complexities of divorce involving children with disabilities. She also is a Certified Special Needs Divorce Coach, Certified Divorce Specialist, Mosten-Guthrie Disability-Informed Professional, Certified Mediator, and Co-Director of the Special Needs Chapter of the National Association of Divorce Professionals.

Mary Ann is well versed in the daily and long-term challenges of children with complex needs as the mom of young adult sons on the autism spectrum, as well as through her 20+ years of experience and training, including the LoneStar LEND Leadership Education in Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program.

Mary Ann’s experience in divorce led her to form Special Family Transitions, and she is committed to helping parents advocate for themselves and their children with special needs before, during, and after divorce. In addition to 1:1 coaching, Mary Ann also shares her knowledge via articles, podcasts, training, and social media, as well as her inspirational and helpful online course: Success in Divorce for Moms of Children with Special Needs. Mary Ann is happy to help families and organizations interested in special needs divorce information and can be reached via her website


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