Special Needs Parenting: When Your Husband Doesn’t Get It

Having a child with special needs is always hard on a relationship. But special needs parenting when your husband doesn’t get it? It can be devastating. 

“There are times,” I admitted with a sigh.

“There are times that I wish I could just give him an injection of autism awareness and education. Like a vaccine. Or a strong dose of IV antibiotics.”

My friend smiled sadly.

I did too.

“I want him to have all the information and know how to deal with this. But it’s like I am the wrong person to give it to him. He needs another father, or his own access to the therapists, or something. And the really hard part is that less he knows, the less he is equipped to really parent and help our child.”

And the less he can help you,” my friend said quietly.

“Yep,” I said, tears welling up. And then I changed the subject.

Special Needs Parenting: When Your Husband Doesn't Get It

A reader wrote me this note a few weeks ago. It is almost identical to so many others I have received over the past few years.

I love seeing all the pictures of you and your husband. He seems like such a great guy. But what would you say to a mom who feels like she is doing this all alone? My husband doesn’t get it. He yells at my son. He tells me that he thinks I am overreacting. He doesn’t believe that my son’s meltdowns shouldn’t be punished. I am so unhappy all the time. I feel like I am caught. What can I do?


When I received this message, I started to cry. First, because I felt so bad for this mom. Second, because I think I may have given y’all the wrong impression. And third, because I hear this all the time.

Now, I realize it is not always the mom in this situation. I am certain there are circumstances in which the father feels like his wife is not engaged in coping with a child’s diagnosis. But no one has ever written me a letter about it and it has not been my own experience at home. And so, I will stick to writing about what I have personally experienced.

Sometimes, my husband just doesn’t get it.

I am writing this with his expressed permission.

I am writing this because, as much as I love this man and always want to publicly honor him and the commitment he has made to me and the boys, there are times that we argue over our children’s special needs. Like, a lot.

(This is about the everyday disconnect that happens in all marriages from time to time. It is about how our children’s special needs can sometimes become the source of that disconnect. This post is not about tolerating abuse. Please hear me. If you are in an abusive relationship – this is not the post for you. Please message me directly and I will direct you to resources that can help!)


It started before we were even married and my husband was certain that he and Super Nanny could fix it all.

Prior to my son’s diagnosis, the meltdowns, escalating violence and property damage were the #1 issue in our marriage – bar none.

Post-diagnosis, helping my husband understand what the therapists are teaching me, helping him see what is behind my son’s behavior, and getting on the same page as to how we approach parenting (for both of our sons), has been one of the most frustrating, rewarding, painful, rewarding, anger inducing, and rewarding parts of our marriage.

Now, we have only been married for five years. I am by no means even remotely an expert in this. In fact, I am writing this post, only because I cannot find any other resources that address it.

Despite the haze and filters that a blog post can sometimes cast on real life, my husband and I struggle all the time with this – all the time. We are not great partners to each other. We are not special needs parenting experts. We are not somehow better than or more equipped than anyone else.

We fail. He fails. I fail. We fail each other and our children – all the time.

And we are learning – all the time.

Here is my response to all the moms who have written me, and to my own heart.

Special Needs Parenting: When Your Husband Doesn’t Get It

Time Matters

I spend almost every minute of my waking life caring for my sons. Sometimes, it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I have had loads of time, and so much trial and error, to study my son’s behaviors, to learn his triggers, to craft his routine, and to meet with all of his doctors and therapists to figure out the best way to help my son learn to cope and live. My husband has maybe two hours every day plus weekends (which incidentally, are always tougher for my son because we are out of routine). Mick has gone to a small fraction of  the appointments with ‘experts’, has never read a book about autism or lupus, and reads articles only when I forward them to him and say, “You need to read this.”

The reality is that I am the primary care giver. He is not. It is unrealistic for me to expect that he would know how to do this. I don’t even know how to do this, and I am in it all day, every day.

Divide and Conquer

We have made the most progress, in gaining a better shared understanding of our son, when we have intentionally divided and conquered. I know it seems counter intuitive – doing separate things in order to feel more connected – but this has really worked for us. For example, a long-standing and unspoken rule has been to allow me to manage my older son’s meltdown, while my husband immediately steps in to comfort and distract my youngest son. My husband knows that dealing with a full-blown meltdown is not his strong suit, and I feel supported and helped because I am not worrying about my little guy while attending to his older brother.

It makes us both feel like the other is contributing to a very difficult situation. And it makes us a team.

We Are So Different

So, so different. Ridiculously different. The way we approach our schedules, what we like to eat, how we like to spend our free time – we are two very different people. This was clear from the very first day of our honeymoon, when I wanted to get up early and go for a bike ride on the beach, and my husband wanted to relax and order room service. These differences are part of our marriage. And I can see how they make us both better.

I think this means I shouldn’t be surprised, when my husband responds to the kids differently than I do. I don’t have to like it, but I do need to recognize that this is a part of who he is. He is more forceful than I am. He is more prone to yelling when he is angry. I tend to try to make everything better by people pleasing (even with my children), and he wants to get to the bottom of the problem and stop it.

Sometimes he messes up. Sometimes I mess up. When we give each other grace in parenting, even with our different approaches, our children fare better. So do we.

And that brings me to my most important point –

It’s About The Two of Us

Our marriage is about us. Not the boys. No matter how much our day-to-day involves our children, Mick and I are man and wife. Not man, wife and two boys that require a lot of care. What I have tried to communicate to my man, and I would encourage you to do the same, is that when he responds angrily to the boys/me, or checks out and leaves me to deal with all of the tough stuff, it hurts my heart as his wife – not as the boys’ mom.

For me, the worst part about being the primary care giver, is having my husband seem to not care or understand how tough it is (or in some instances, make caring for my son more difficult by blowing things up). For my husband, it is the feeling that I am aligning myself with the boys, and not with him.

The only way I have found to combat this (and believe me, we are terrible at it most of the time), is to lean in and not pull away. It’s seeking the other, wanting to try to get back on the same page, apologizing, forgiving, admitting that we suck at this, and agreeing to give each other grace, over and over again.

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Special needs parenting when your husband doesn’t get it?

Marriage is easy on paper.

It’s the living, day in and day out, that complicates it.

Sometimes, my husband just doesn’t get it.

And I am 100% certain that he would say the same about me.

I am not sure it is any different in families without any special needs.

I think marriage is marriage. It’s messy. It’s beautiful.

It’s loving more than we thought we ever could. It’s forgiving more than we thought we ever could.

We keep reaching for one another, trying to understand, working to figure it out, enjoying the fun times, and not holding the bad ones against each other.

We fail.

We hope.

We fight.

We pray.

We love.

The Constant Turmoil Of Parenting A Child With Special Needs

The Language We Learn As Parents Of Children With Special Needs


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  1. Allison Walton says:


    That? Is me giving you both a big old bear hug.

    1. You are awesome, girl. Thank you!

  2. This assumes that mom’s way of dealing with the kids is “right” and dad’s is “wrong”, which may or may not be the case.

    This assumes that mom hasn’t spent years nagging and nitpicking at dad’s way of interacting with the kids, effectively telling him his efforts are wasted and he shouldn’t bother trying.

    1. All very true, Katie.
      I write about what I know, and not a thing beyond that. I have nit picked and critiqued way more than I am proud of. What I try and live in is that no matter how difficult the relationship has become, it always helps to try and see it from the other’s perspective and to give as much grace as possible – then give some more grace.

    2. I agree as a dad of a special needs child. This may be how you feel but what about dad? I’m not trying to be a jerk at all but this story really needs both sides. It’s hard to be a dad of a special needs child. It’s harder when you can’t seem to do anything right in the eyes of your kids or your wife

    3. As the father of two boys, one with ASD, I think you deliver sound guidance and speak to the feelings of ANY primary caregiver, be it mom or dad. Things get a little more complicated when special needs are thrown into the mix, as agreeing on child-rearing methods is even more important for a child that has a great need for consistency. You are not just merely empathizing with other moms who struggle with your same feelings but also encouraging them to constructively deal with these feelings and work together in order to build a stronger marriage with dad. The fact is, the primary caregiver usually has been the one to immerse themselves in research, attend all the appointments and therapy, read everything they can get their hands on, join the groups, speak to experts, etc. and has essentially, through trial, error and experience, become the expert of what works best to help their child. When the other parent, although tirelessly supporting the family in other ways, has not, but approaches with their own methods(maybe suggested by well-meaning relatives) without collaborating or maybe listening, resentment builds on both sides from feeling disrespected and discounted. Speaking from experience, most dads are wired to solve problems and fix things. It is difficult for some of us to get through the ‘denial’ phase and just accept that we aren’t going to find the one solution to change everything, which can complicate matters.

      Katie, your comment hit home because it is something my wife and I struggled with ….I don’t feel Shawna wrote this assuming her way is ‘right’ and dad’s way is ‘wrong’ at all. She clearly stated that they are both fallible, and most importantly, need to work together. As for your experience with the ‘nitpicking’ and ‘nagging’ mom you refer to, there are always two sides to every story, as another poster pointed out. Could it be that you are just getting dad’s version, or your view of the situation is somehow biased? Whatever the case, sounds like a (familiar)marriage issue that they need to work out between each other.
      In the beginning, I was relying on advice from my parents, (who I now understand don’t ‘get it’ even after confirmation from several different professionals), instead of relying on my ‘researcher’ wife. She felt discounted and alone. I felt nitpicked and nagged.
      Has he ever specifically communicated to her how he feels? Maybe it’s a defense mechanism that mom has developed from feeling a lack of support and respect, especially if she is the primary caregiver. Maybe she feels criticized and judged also—-my wife’s experience.
      When a diagnosis is confirmed, even when it’s been suspected, we all go through our own timeline of many emotions-denial/blame/guilt/self-doubt/acceptance, which can take years. Blame and guilt are tough ones! Maybe they are still struggling with a few of those? Having a child with special needs, no matter the severity, can be tough and isolating, especially if there’s a lack of support. Point is, there are so many things that happen behind the scenes in a marriage, that unless you are present in the relationship, you can’t possibly know the whole story. Shawna is only relaying her own, what works for her, and simply saying that a little understanding and empathy go a long way. In order to build a stronger union, a husband and wife need to be open and honest, communicate and continually work together, without outside influence and opinions.

      1. Thank for your such a thoughtful and encouraging reply, Jon. It is always so good to hear from a dad’s perspective. I appreciate your taking the time to share yours!

  3. “Lean in and not pull away”…love that!! Thanks!

  4. It is challenging for me, as a Christian, to submit to my husband as the head of the family in matters involving my kids, when I (homeschooling mother) am the one with the kids constantly and understand some things about my kids that my husband doesn’t. Perhaps without God’s power working in our lives there would be no way to reconcile these things. I try to share information with him without trying to change him or control how he uses that knowledge. It’s a frequent struggle for me not to let my fears control my responses.

    I love, Shawna, how you have learned not only how your sons operate, but your husband, too. Maybe some people do this “one flesh” thing easily, but as one for whom it doesn’t come naturally, I appreciate your sharing your experience!

    1. I love what you said about fear controlling our responses. I struggle with that constantly – with my husband and with the boys!

  5. Encourage and support you as you go through this. My story… For years I was the primary caregiver, research, homeschool mom, dealer with his issues. Dad was the fun dad on weekends. When my son became a team and his interests diverged from his father’s, his father frankly got sarcastic passive aggressive and mean to both of us. I can see that it was his anxiety and wanting us to go with his program. However my son and I are people in our own right, and the day my 13 year old said, Mom you know Dad is verbally abusing you, was the day I went looking for apartments. I was too isolated in our house so I wanted to move to a place that was more Central to homeschoolers and access to aspie kids. Which I had been requesting for years but not really heard or believed. Looking back I see my husband’s Spectrum tendencies and issues of control and anxiety. I look with compassion, but he hurt us badly by not trying to understand and by not trying 2 help my son in the way that a unique, beautiful, brilliant child should be raised. Now that my son is 14 and capable of flying across the country to visit relatives by himself ,and someone who has made a couple good friends, I can look back and say Mom you did good. I validated him, I did not discipline him as hard or in the way my husband wanted me too, but make no mistake I did discipline and I did challenge him. Sadly it exhausted me so much when we moved to the apartment I mostly slept and cared for my son and decompressed. We are still in this apartment .A year later, happier more peaceful and confident of our relationship the two of us, me and the son I had to protect. The marriage didn’t work but it did bring some moments of joy and a fabulous boy. I tried and tried and tried and now I get to succeed and be happy and watch my son relax and finally be himself

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Jennifer. I am so grateful.
      Yes, there is a line and an important one here. Abuse is never something to tolerate or make excuses for. It pains me to think that someone might read this and feel shamed into accepting an abusive situation. I have added a note to the piece, in the hopes that it might help. I am so glad you shared your thoughts and I am so glad you and your son are in a safe and much more peaceful place!
      Praying for you both.

  6. Thanks for this! Our situation is slightly different, yet the same. And you seemed to have nailed it! My son has mild cerebral palsy, chronic fluid in ears (3rd set of tubes), and starting to suspect a learning disability or processing issue.

    I am home full time with the boys. I am the one who attends all the dr visits. I am the one who sees things that my husband does not. And yes, sometimes he doesn’t get it.

    He is the head of the house, and I fully submit to him. He has learned to trust me in certain aspects of the boys lives. And yes, we are both still learning too!!

    He doesn’t like to discuss the health/learning issues. So I have learned to navigate without being straightforward when approaching these things. I have learned to slip in snipetts of what concern I might have over the course of a few weeks (enough that he gets the idea of what I am saying without me saying it), then I let him know I plan to schedule an appointment. By then, he has had time to let it soak into his brain that something is going on and it isn’t nearly as stressful for either of us.

    And he knows that addressing these needs are important, even when he doesn’t fully understand.

    Once he realizes that certain issues aren’t going away, he begins to embrace the reality, and when he is around, he does what he can to help (in his own different way). And I respect his way is different and allow him to lead in those areas as best I can when he is home.

    For me, giving my husband time to process what is going on, without nagging or drilling him or pushing the issue has been the best for us and our marriage. Once he has had the time he needs, he is all in!

  7. Mom and wife of Aspies says:

    Important article and just knowing there are other families where one parent “doesn’t get it” is helpful. I went through years of handling our youngest differently than my husband, and while it looked on the surface to my husband that “his way” worked, by the time our youngest son was a teenager, he wanted nothing to do with his dad and began to act out terribly – smoking weed, dropped out of school, out of wedlock child – just to start. He told me he “gave up” on his dad and simply did not feel like he had a dad. He avoided his dad with a passion and really struggled for several years. Then, I began to realize his dad had Aspergers/HFA. All the signs were there. ALL of them. It was their sameness that caused so many problems between them and my husband’s total lack of personal insight about himself. Once I began to approach my husband’s meltdowns/anger/”way beyond normal” need for sameness in everything (right down to where the glasses are kept in the kitchen cabinet) and helped get Dad out of defense mode, everything started to get better. Unfortunately, many years of my son seeing his dad meltdown over very simple things, etc, has left scars and he is so afraid of “being like dad,” that he avoids facing some of his own struggles now. He does not want the label, even if accepting who he is would help him get access to resources etc. He is such a wonderful young man and we do very well together – as I have always approached his needs with respect and based on what worked and what helped, not on “if he’s so smart, why can’t he do ______(whatever) “he should be punished” or “you’re just spoiling him” or just making fun of him for falling short or having problems. I usually feel like I am raising two kids with autism – one a young adult now and one that I’m married to. Although things have gotten much better in the past year, it’s very tiring and sometimes very lonely. If I didn’t have my faith and wasn’t a very strong individual to start with, I would not have made it this far. Sometimes, I just long for someone to ask me what I need or for the day to be adapted to me instead of it always being the other way around! My son, who just turned 21, is starting to get that part at least and he thanks me often for hanging in there with him and has told me he would not be doing so well now if it had not been for me. He even has started on occasion to ask me how I am doing. (Yes, very cool, even if he is not yet able to get past a very simple response from me.) There is light at the end of the tunnel. Anyway – thanks all, for letting me ramble and again, its comforting to know there are others out there with spouses that “don’t get it.”

  8. Thank you for this beautiful truthful post. I love the statement “Lean in and not pull away” and “Give grace and then more grace”

  9. I am with you all the way I feel the same way and it is tough and feels like we have no time to ourselves. I wish there was a book that I could tell him look this is the way .But he says that it is me spoiling my son and that I overreact. I wish you the best and congratulate you on your strength

  10. We have just begun the testing process and my husband has made it clear he thinks I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. He believes our child suffers from lack of discipline and has no interest in going to any of the appointments. It helped tremendously to know that we are not alone. Thank you for writing this.

    1. My husband refuses to pay for an assessment! I am absolutely beside myself.

  11. Alexandria says:

    Good evening, I became a mother of four boys. Even though being one of the young mothers it has never passed me that I seen something unusual with my eldest son. I was back and fourth with dr’s telling me they can give him medicine which I rejected because at the time we did not have a diagnosis. I requested an IEP when he was in middle school we had the IEP and we got turned away. During the IEP they said he is capable of learning he is just lazy. Here we are now and he got Diagnosed with ASD/ADHD/Anxiety /Depression at age 14. His high school psychologist did his own Diagnosis he does not think my son has ASD. With that being said it’s a domino effect on my family. I have 3 younger boys who I’d like to get checked out as well. I believe for sure my 4 year old has ASD/ADHD I feel bad for him he’s always getting hurt nothing seems to hurt him he is definitely hyper. Very picky eater loud noise bothers him light bothers him I had to wait in a line for 35 mins with him turning in cable boxes he cried the entire time, a woman turned around and said shut that kid up I struggle with him everyday his teacher does not agree she said he is fine I mentioned to here he does fine Because he is only here for 3 hours and you have a routine.My 12 year old is the most well behaved great student except for the stress has been affecting him he has always had a short temper. My 7 yr old is a great student but treats me awful and adores his dad so much but he works a lot he also tends to have different mood swings I feel he hates me sometimes because he will come home look for his dad and slam doors asking where is Dad MOM!! he forgets so much I tell him to do something for example: I will say throw your trash away pick up your drink wash your hands he gets upset so quick he will have a really bad attitude and say you want me to do a lot and ASK ME WHICH ONE FIRST !!! He does not like me to smother him with hugs and kisses he gets upset with that also. I dare not talk to him with a attitude because he will give me a really dirty look and say I DID THAT ALREADY I feel I am always walking on eggshells with him. My kids are always fighting I am always having to pull them apart.I am your average stay at home mom. I am truly embarrassed I am just not sure what else. My fiancé and I are still engaged because we never have time for eachother he works in the oilfield and I hate his work hours. I use to be very supportive with his job, but I have not little patience to he anymore for the last 3 years I’ve cried to him about his schedule and told him I really need him. He does not want to hear anything that has to do with his work schedule. He’s seen me crying in our bedroom and will pass by and walk away. He has texted me and said all you do is cry I said I know because I’m reaching out for help to save us and our family and all you can say is Your done with my attitude and your done with Gabriel. I told him once upon a time you were my best friend and now I feel I mean nothing to you, you even forgot about our anniversary because you were working graveyard hours and I left to take Dylan and Jordan to the doctors because they had ear infections. Left the 12 year old home because he said he needed time away from all my disabled kids. After the little kids appointment I dropped my 7 year old off (Dylan) with my brother because having Jordan and Dylan together to long causes problems. I also had another appointment to go to Gabriel had psychiatrist appt. I brought Jordan with us and of course he miss behaved. That is just one incident with a million more to go. He thinks all I do is complain for so long I kept it to myself because I didn’t want it to affect us it already affected me but I always pretended that I was ok because if I didn’t he would want to know what happened ago look for Gabriel and yell at him. So I hid a lot from him for a long time because when I did bring up saying that’s not fair all you and his school do is say how bad he is instead of trying to help him and then my 12 yr old started yelling at me saying Gabriel is my big fat baby and that’s all I care about. That tore me part because Adam and I were so close at one point he was like another friend who kept me company all the time straight ‘A’ student very good athlete. And according to Gabriel Adam is my favorite Because he is the smartest I said that’s not true…Gabriel is also a great athlete and the only thing that makes him happy are his friends and football. With that being said I’ve never felt so warn down And I feel so put down someone in my home is always mad at me, Im always on the go go go wanting to treat all my kids fair all of them are in a activity. Also at the moment all (4) of my kids have the flu so I’ve just been cleaning and washing everything and back and fourth with soups/drinks/medicine with them and Danny isn’t here to help me. I feel this Heavy pain on my chest I never felt this way I just feel like crying all the time.I text him while he’s at work he use to text me all the time he also use to FaceTime me all the time. And all I got from him was what did you buy at vons because I’m always taking care of what’s going on at home I don’t work I tried that and Gabriel’s school called me way much. And I did not really I’ve anyone to watch Jordan. I wanted to talk to him and he said alright you must me tired goodnight.Ive never felt so rejected in my life I just want to scream and walk out that front door and not turn back..

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