Custody of Children with Special Needs

Disputes over child custody are emotionally taxing on all parties involved. For both children and adults, the process is difficult, confusing, and usually fairly stressful. When evaluating custody arrangements, we’ve spoken about a number of factors the court will analyze when coming up with a recommendation, all designed to make a determination that is in the best interests of the child. Sometimes, the best solution is very obvious, while other times, not so obvious, which is why the court relies on the custody factors.

One of the factors is determining which party is capable of providing a loving and stable environment. At first this seems appalling and I can see how, in an already competitive and high-conflict situation, this factor would compel parents to step up and prove they are better than the other. Luckily, this isn’t a zero sum game; it is entirely possible for the court to decide that the parties are equal on this factor. In fact, glaring exceptions aside, a Judge would lean this way. But sometimes, even if both parents are capable, a Judge may have to choose sides.

A perfect example to illustrate the necessity of this factor is custody cases with children who have special needs, such as autism. Parents of children with special needs must realize that despite the inclination to spend as much of their time with their child as possible, this isn’t always in the child’s best interest. The court is going to look at these types of situations subjectively to determine what the best course of action is, and as a parent, it is your job to put the children first. Maybe your child requires total darkness and quiet spaces to sleep, but your new apartment is on a busy and well-lit road next to a 24-hour gas station. There are a number of examples I could come up with that have very little to do with you. Your child has OCD and the bathroom tiles are too small to avoid walking on the cracks. Your child has separation anxiety and can’t stand to be apart from the other parent. Sensory issues, behavioral problems, autism, separation anxiety- any of these can affect the comfort of the child.

Your child may not even have a diagnosis, but they are simply unable to excel without following exact routines or sleeping in the same house every night. It is important to realize that as a parent, many of these things are out of your control. Other things to consider is education accommodations, health care accessibility, and travel time between custody exchanges. All of these factors will have weight in determining the best custody arrangement. Sure, you could try to duplicate their living environment as closely as possible, but at the end of the day, your child’s needs outweigh your own.

If you are the primary parent, it is important to recognize why. It isn’t because the other parent is incapable or that you are the “better” parent. In other words, don’t gloat, and try to put yourself in their shoes, because you never know what will happen in the future. You may find that your primary status becomes shared, or even secondary. Respect the difficulty the other parent is facing, and in the spirit of this factor, create an environment that is warm, loving, and stable. If the other parent doesn’t have any overnights, maybe agree that they should have dinners a few times a week, or agree to let them see the kids after school. Allow your child access to phones or other means of communication so they can check in with the other parent. Keep the other parent informed of any events or activities and try to keep them as involved as possible.

If you are the secondary parent, be open to alternative ways of spending time with your child. The quantity of time spend seldom matters; quality is far superior to quantity. When you do have custody, make the most of it and be aware of the accommodations you may need to make. The difficulty I’ve seen occurs when one of the parents does not fully understand the child’s condition or situation. Learn about it, even if you don’t think that their clinical depression sounds that bad. Be sensitive to their feelings, and put them before yours. Maybe there is more quality time to be had while going over to the primary parent’s house to watch a half hour cartoon that to have an uncomfortable child, out doing activities all weekend.

As with all custody cases, solutions can be as by-the-book or as creative as necessary. Families excel when parents create loving and stable environments, no matter the challenge or what it looks like.

This article was written by writer and content strategist, K. Gleason.

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