Routine helps children with autism in a Pennsylvania divorce

In a divorce, child custody decisions are some of the most difficult. The best interests of the child or children need to remain in the forefront. April is Autism Awareness month, which brings up unique child custody issues.

Autism has become an increasingly common diagnosis in American children. Studies have found that the odds of divorcing are no higher for parents of autistic children. However, when a relationship breaks down it can be harder on the child.

Children with medical, developmental or psychiatric disorders may need special custody arrangements. A family therapist familiar with autism may be able to assist with a child custody/parenting plan. Separation issues, difficulty adapting to change and other personal issues can be addressed in the divorce process.

Pennsylvania child custody terminology

There are two types of custody - legal and physical. A court may order shared legal custody or sole legal custody. In general shared legal custody is appropriate where the parents can communicate with each other about medical treatment, schooling and religion. For a child with autism shared legal custody may become contentious if one parent fails to appreciate the serious nature of a diagnosis.

Shared or joint physical custody allows more than one individual significant periods of time with a child. It is not necessarily equal though. Generally, the parents must live nearby each other to make a shared schedule work especially as children reach school age.

By contrast a primary physical custody award allows one parent a majority of the time with the child. The other parent receives partial physical custody. These arrangements are preferable when parents live on opposite ends of the state or country.

Best interest of the child standard

When deciding what is the in the best interest of the child, the court reviews 16 relevant factors, including:

  • Frequent and encouraged contact between the child and each party
  • Parental duties performed by each party
  • The ability to provide a loving stable, consistent relationship adequate to meet the child's emotional needs
  • Availability of care or appropriate child care arrangements

For a child that is on the Autism spectrum it may be best to structure longer visits with each parent. Keeping a routine during the school year may improve school performance and minimize stress. A custody or visitation plan must consider transitions between homes and provide flexibility so the child can attend appointments for counseling sessions, special therapy and other medical care. Working together to find appropriate educational programs is also important.

Even when a child does not suffer from a disability, establishing a routine can smooth the adjustment process. A family law attorney can answer questions about child custody and assist in negotiating a plan that works for co-parenting into the future.