Well Being

Divorce a “common side effect” of autism?

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Kurt Thometz is a rare book dealer in New York and the father of 16-year-old Adam, who has autism. Thometz is profiled in the August 11th New York Times (subscription only) about his search for a home for his family of three and for his 400 cartons containing some 10,000 books. Jim Dwyer relates Thometz's longstanding passion for books with Adam's beginning to use words himself:

……By the age of 5, Adam had not yet spoken an intelligible word — not Mommy, not Daddy, not milk or no. Mr. Thometz read to him every night for two and a half years. With Adam in the crook of his arm, the weight of the day on him, Mr. Thometz was reading Thomas the Tank Engine for the 200th time.

“Henry the engine,” he read.

“Green,” Adam interrupted.

Yes: the proper name was Henry the Green engine. Mr. Thometz had dropped the word. “He supplied it,” Mr. Thometz said. “It was the first time he had used a word on purpose.” And it was the first rung on the ladder he climbed from his isolation. Today, Adam, 16, entertains friends, plays music, and is thriving.

And now, long after the summer days have given way to dusk, a glow spills from the ground-floor window of the brownstone on 160th Street. Four letters seem to float in the window, cutting a silhouette into the light from the bookshop beyond.

“WORD,” it says.

Adam, it seems, was listening very closely to the words in the books his father read. I was struck by Adam's speaking up about his father leaving out a color word, “green.” My own son Charlie finds it a challenge to put two and three words together on his own, and combinations of colors and nouns are the easiest (we have just started to teach him “big” vs. “small” for third or fourth time; I can see Charlie concentrating when I say to him “which is the big ball?” but he does not always get this right.)

A statement made about autism and divorce in the New York Times piece made me pause: Adam's mother is Thometz's first wife. The reporter writes “Adam, a son from his first marriage, had autism, accompanied by its common side effect, divorced parents.” The story about Adam coming into language late and his “over-fondness” for Thomas are familiar, but I have to wonder about saying that “divorced parents” are a “common side effect” of autism. Back in June the National Autism Association (NAA) announced that it was launching the “first national program to combat divorce rates in autism community” and cited a figure of 80%. I have also seen a figure of 85% regarding the divorce rate among parents of autistic children and am not sure about sources for these numbers.

It is the case that most of the autistic children that I know come from families in which the parents are married. While the NAA notes that “caring for an autistic child often can result in marital hardship and isolation,” among the autism parents whom I know who are divorced, the reasons for ending a marriage are highly varied. Raising an autistic child certainly makes family life different from what one might have imagined, but to say that divorce is a “common side effect” singles out autism, and an autistic child, as a specific marital stressor.

And from the New York Times article, one gets the sense that perhaps those many readings of Thomas the Tank Engine to Adam further instilled a passion for books in Thometz, and a sense of the power of words—something of a side effect I have indeed felt from raising my son Charlie.