Supporting autistic children in the Family Court
Emma Hubbard reviews assistance for neurodiverse children in family proceedings
It is vital for the Family Court – and everyone who is involved in the process – to adapt and make reasonable adjustments in order to meet the needs of an autistic person. Whilst I address this piece in terms of autism, because this is where I am familiar, the content could be relevant to any neurodiverse person. This is not an article of professional expertise in neurodiversity, but rather my observation as a parent of an autistic child and a lawyer in the Family Court, where these issues are becoming more prevalent.
There needs to be a de-stigmatisation of autism and a better understanding of neurodiversity. This starts in wider society and we as a profession have a role to play. Autism isn’t ‘wrong’, nor is it a health condition. Autism is part of a person. We accept as a society reasonable provisions should be made for physically or medically disabled people, but for the neurodiverse, the attitude of ‘get on with it’ appears to be the norm. How many times have you heard the words ‘they aren’t that autistic’ or ‘their autism doesn’t affect their day-to-day life’ uttered in the Family Court? Autism is experienced differently by every person. They may be non-verbal, they may have limited communication skills. They may lack eye contact. They might mask worries and anxieties and appear fine on the surface while drowning underneath. They might view the world in black and white and have a literal approach to everything. What is certain is no person is ‘more autistic’ than the other.
Why does the court need to know?
Where an autistic child or adult is involved in Family Court proceedings, the court needs to be made aware of this from the outset. Every decision and instruction made needs to consider and allow reasonable adjustments so the intention is clear and unambiguous.
The professionals involved, whether lawyer, judge or expert, have to understand the needs of the autistic person involved in their case. How will they communicate? Will they speak? Use a computer? Can they complete a written exercise? Do they need their crux, i.e. a teddy or a fidget toy? There also needs to be consideration of where meetings or hearings will take place. Will they need someone they are comfortable with in the meeting or hearing with them? For a meeting away from court, does it need to be somewhere familiar to the person involved? Does the person have a particular fear which needs to be addressed when going into new environments? This could be a fear of loud noises, or sensitivity to light, for example. My child can tell you where every fire alarm, fire bell and fire exit is in his school. Take him to a new environment and this would be his first concern. For a court hearing, does the person need to be taken to the court in advance of the hearing? Will this help to ease anxieties of a new environment, noises, lights and layout? You have to allow time, time to adjust, time to assess – and time to build confidence.
How can we help?
There has to be acceptance autistic people can (not all) be prone to ‘meltdowns’ or outbursts, noises, stimming (such as arm or hand-flapping, rocking or other body movements), or lack of eye contact. These aren’t a sign of bad parenting or a person isn’t listening. They are signs of coping, lack of coping and of self-regulation. If these behaviours exhibit during a meeting or hearing, how do you address it? Do there need to be regular breaks in meetings or hearings, to allow concentration to be maintained? For example, an autistic person is likely to struggle sitting in court for a full day with only a break for lunch.
In a Family Court system already under pressure and with stretched resources, the concepts of taking time and building relationships are not always a luxury that can be afforded. For autistic people, they are unavoidable – and have to be respected to secure an outcome in the best interests of all involved. Alternative approaches to court proceedings should always be considered, such as arbitration, family therapy, and mediation. These alternatives can provide more time and space to take an autistic person’s needs into account and shape a process which works for them.
Emma Hubbard is an associate family solicitor with Irwin Mitchell: irwinmitchell.com/our-people/emma-hubbard