Should Parents of An Autistic Child Have a Second Child?

Pros and Cons of Having Another Child

Twins
Twins. Courtesy of Ethermoon via Flickr

You've always planned to have several children. Then your first child was diagnosed with autism -- and you've struggled to come to terms with all that the diagnosis entails. Life with an autistic child is tougher than you'd anticipated, but it also comes with its own joys. Now it's time to ask the question "should we get pregnant again?"

A Complex Question to Consider

This question is, of course, only relevant to families who feel comfortable with birth control.

But for those families, the question is very complex. Families with one autistic child do have an increased risk of having a second child with the disorder - and even a typical child may have a tough time coping with the reality of a sibling on the autism spectrum.  

When considering this issue, parents may feel many things. For example:

  • They may feel guilty about "short changing" their autistic child by tending to a second child's needs;
  • They may feel anxious about their ability to manage the needs of a second child, especially if that child is also autistic;
  • They may feel a sense of obligation to a spouse who has always wanted more than one child;
  • They may feel worried about whether their finances, energy, and personal resources will be enough to manage a larger family;
  • They may feel hopeful about the possibility of having a child whose experiences will be closer to those of other children around them;
  • They may feel mixed emotions about the idea of bringing a child into the world knowing that he or she will ultimately have to take on at least some responsibility for a disabled sibling.

A Psychologist's Perspective

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D. specialize in working with parents of children with special needs. Here is their advice to parents.

You are not alone, as an individual or as a couple, in facing the risks of what seems like a genetic lottery. Recent research now confirms that the risk of having a child who will be eventually diagnosed on the autistic spectrum is high. While this is nothing to take lightly, still the chances of having a typical child are far greater. This makes this a personal decision that will shape the rest of your life and your family’s life.

What happens if you do have more than one child on the spectrum? One thing is sure: These children are different as individuals in terms of their functional levels and their personalities. They are also quite connected to each other as siblings.

Some parents cope well, and others are overwhelmed beyond my ability to describe in words. Some have no regrets and love and cherish each child as unique and special in the universe. Others wish they had never tried to have another child and wonder what might have been. There are also couples who cannot make up their minds as well as couples deeply divided on the issue.

There are also many people who had a typical child and feel “brand new.”

With all this in mind, it is important ​to talk openly and honestly about your reasons for wanting another child and about how they would feel if they had another child with special needs. Also, it is essential to consider what kind of life that hoped-for typical child might have. The most important thing is to not push your partner one way or the other while being really honest about how you imagine you would deal with a second child with autism as well as how you could deal with each other without trying to have a second child. Some people resent each other and even if they stay married they begin to live separate emotional lives.

Another way to look at life in your situation is to put all of your parenting energy in the child you have. The joy and satisfaction can make you happy for a lifetime if you are secure with this decision for yourself and your marriage. Some people go the adoption route which is also not without risks. So you have a lot to think about. Definitely, there is no right or wrong decision.

What’s important is how you get there. If you still can’t arrive at a decision you are both comfortable with, you might want to consider consulting with a mental health professional who has experience helping people sort out these kinds of dilemmas. Having a child with a disability such as autism certainly teaches how little we are in control of. What we do have control over is the decisions that we can make when we do so with an open and clear mind.

What to Know About Autism and a Second Child

If you do decide to have another baby, keep in mind that there may be some initial regression in your autistic child. What's more, there is really no way to know what your autistic child's needs might be down the line. If you do have a neurotypical child, he or she will eventually live with the struggles inherent in living with a sibling who does not develop in the same way as other children. Then again, many children with siblings with special needs develop a maturity and tolerance not seen as often in the general population; they can be the best kind of teacher, model and advocate the child with special needs can have.

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