Divorce is rarely an amicable situation. Occasional stress and tension in marriage is inevitable. The outward, vocal expression of arguments between married couples can vary from silent, passive-aggressive behavior to knockdown, drag-out, obscenity-shouting brawls. In any event, your very sensitive child with Asperger's Syndrome will probably sense marital discord long before you realize it yourself — even if you believe you've been very cautious. Parents, in the context of a loving and safe home environment, are the very rock of stability for all children, especially the child with Asperger's.
No child should have to grow up subjected to a tense, abusive home life in which parents interact in harsh and angry ways. The child with Asperger's Syndrome may internalize what is transpiring around her and assume personal responsibility for it — even if none of the marital conflict has any reflection on her. It can be an utterly terrifying time, and the internal personalization of the situation cannot be contained indefinitely. In the child with Asperger's Syndrome, this can manifest itself in:
Depressive symptoms (see Chapter 7)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (see Chapter 7)
Regular symptoms of physical illness
Rashes and other skin irritations
An increase in “acting out” or other “attention-seeking” behaviors
Increased difficulty in school
Resolving the situation, maintaining peace wherever possible, and providing assurances as divorce is impending should aid the situation. Only you can determine if other interventions, such as child protective services or family or psychiatric counseling, would be appropriate to augment your efforts. If so, you will need to ensure that such intervention is tailored to accommodate your child's way of understanding and interpreting information.
Most children are naturally inclined to believe that they are somehow the cause of a divorce. This may be intensified in your child with Asperger's and will be reinforced if she witnessed or overheard conflicts in which she was at the center of an argument. It is also natural for any child to feel emotional upheaval in wondering whom to “side” with, especially if one parent “plays” the child against the other. Even if you are seeking to escape a harmful or abusive situation, your child with Asperger's is likely to feel emotionally torn. In such a situation, all children will require constant assurances during a time in which uncertainty about the future reigns. This will be especially true of the child with Asperger's and, as you've learned, verbal assurances are not enough.
In certain divorce scenarios, some parents wrongfully manipulate children into “taking sides” with one parent. This can set a regrettable precedent for the child with Asperger's who may maintain a longtime association with the mind-set that has been instilled, making reconnecting with the “opposing” parent hurtful or challenging.
Your child will require pictures, words, and stories to help make sense of it all and to foster some measure of safety and comfort. It will be helpful to make private time alone with your child. If you and your spouse are civil with one another, meeting together with your child will be an optimal demonstration of solidarity and goodwill. Explain the circumstances as you would to any of your children. Don't be surprised if your child with Asperger's punctuates your discussion with her own recollections of marital conflicts that stretch back in time — some of which you may have forgotten or of which you failed to realize the full impact. Encouraging your child to write, draw, cartoon storyboard, or use the computer to communicate her feelings and understanding of the situation should be helpful. Review and fine-tune this information with her regularly and be prepared to follow her lead in opening up discussion at times you hadn't anticipated it. Sights, sounds, and smells can trigger thoughts that will lead to your child's need to verbalize her feelings.
Your child may well have to decide where and with whom she'd like to live. This can snowball and lead to other social upheavals concerning a new home, new neighborhood, new family members, and a new school. It may also mean leaving behind friends, family, pets, and very familiar environments.
It is important to stress and review all the things that will stay the same during this transition in addition to walking through the future changes, and to do so often throughout the process (foremost of which should be your unconditional love). Be clear in communicating that the divorce is not your child's fault and demystify any new environmental changes in ways similar to those described in transitioning to a new school.