This week marks Autism Acceptance Week. But what does this mean for family law?

This week marks Autism Acceptance Week. But what does this mean for family law?

It is vital for the Family Courts and everyone who is involved in the process to adapt and make reasonable adjustments in order to meet the needs of an autistic person. In this piece, I’ll be focusing on the needs of autistic children in particular.

Acceptance is key, and it begins in wider society. There needs to be a de-stigmatisation of autism. Autism isn’t “wrong”, nor is it a health condition. Autism is part of a person. I receive looks of horror when I say “my child is autistic”. I don’t make a secret of it and there is nothing to be secretive about. It’s part of him and is something that should be accepted and celebrated for making him who he is. To accept, we have to accept that autistic people process the world around them in their own way.

Where an autistic child is involved in Family Court proceedings, the court needs to be informed from the outset. Every decision and instruction made needs to consider and allow reasonable adjustments for the child. We know that every child is different and no mould fits all, but with autistic children this is even more profound.

Autism is experienced differently by each child. 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 whilst drowning underneath, they might view the world in black and white and have a literal approach to everything. What is certain is that no child is “more autistic” than the other.

In a case where the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), social workers or other experts are instructed to complete a report, we need to think about how we make it work for the child. Does the child struggle interacting with strangers? Will they need several face to face meetings before feeling comfortable enough to interact? Some autistic children might not even communicate at all to begin with. My autistic child wouldn’t engage with a stranger on first meeting, but would happily tell them everything they needed to know about his current topic of interest. You have to allow time; time to adjust; time to assess and time to build a relationship.

The expert needs to know how the child will communicate Will they speak? Use a computer? Can they complete a written exercise? Do they need their crutch i.e. a teddy, a fidget toy? There also needs to be consideration of where meetings will take place. Will they need someone that they are comfortable with in the meeting? Does it need to be somewhere familiar to the child? Does the child have a particular fear that needs to be addressed when going into new environments i.e. fear of loud noises, sensitivity to light” 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. There needs to be awareness that issues such as lack of eye contact doesn’t mean that the child isn’t listening or doesn’t understand. They will be processing in their own way.

There has to be acceptance that some autistic children can be prone to tantrums 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 that a child isn’t listening. They are signs of coping or lack of coping and of self-regulation. If these behaviours exhibit during a meeting, how do you address it? If a parent spends time with a child and the child returns to the other parent and exhibits these behaviours, then is the child coping and do steps need to be taken to address the cause? Ignoring and simply saying they will cope is not an option.

Change can be one of the biggest hurdles for autistic people. How can this be managed in a child? They will possibly already be coping with major life changes such a parental separation, move of home, even move of school and if further changes are to be introduced then how can these be managed in a way that causes as little distress as possible. It might take longer than the “norm” for arrangements to embed. It might require a very gradual build so that the child can adjust and in all cases it will require patience from both parents.

In a Family Court system that is 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 children, they are unavoidable and have to be respected to secure an outcome that is in the best interests of the child. Alternative approaches to court proceedings should always be considered, such as arbitration, family therapy, and child inclusive mediation. These alternatives can provide more time and space to take an autistic child’s needs into account and shape a process which works for them.

Emma Hubbard is an Associate Solicitor at Irwin Mitchell.

Emma Hubbard

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