The family justice system has been under scrutiny recently for a number of reasons including how accessible the system is.
A study recently took place to consider individuals who might have difficulties in accessing justice, and in particular it looked at individuals diagnosed with Autism.
Autism is a developmental conditional. As a result, a person with Autism can have difficulties with social communication and interaction, have restricted and repetitive behaviours and atypical sensory experiences.
Autism affects around 1% of the UK population. Males are more frequently diagnosed with Autism, although research shows that this is most likely as a result of females being more likely to “mask” the typical traits of Autism. An individual with Autism is also more at risk of experiencing anxiety, depression and mental health problems.
When discussing Autism, it is important to consider language. A recent survey of the Autism community concluded that those with Autism preferred the term “Autistic person” or “a person on the spectrum”.
The study referred to above, highlighted that professionals’ within the legal justice system (including Lawyers, Judges and CAFCASS) have, in general, limited knowledge regarding the Autistic person. They also found that those on the spectrum engaging with the family justice system felt marginalised as a result of their Autism.
Relationship breakdown can be highly stressful. For an individual on the spectrum, anxiety levels are likely to be significantly higher than the neurotypical person (an individual not on the spectrum) and therefore engaging with Solicitors and taking the step to file an application with the Court means it is likely that a constant state of heightened anxiety is inevitable. It is important for individuals on the spectrum seeking legal advice, identify advice and support of Solicitors and professionals who will see the world through their lens and are willing to be their advocate at every step of the process.
Having developed an understanding of the Autistic person through working with clients, personal experience and firm training and development, I know how important it is to have consistency and good communication. It is often much easier for the Autistic person to meet in person or via Teams rather than on the telephone for example. Taking a sensory audit of the meeting room before seeing a client on the spectrum is often a good tool for professionals to implement. It can be difficult for an individual on the spectrum to process information, and therefore pausing to allow information to be processed, as well as adjusting eye contact to meet the individual’s level of comfort, is important. It is essential to set clear parameters for communication and to adhere to these. Bullet points rather than lengthy correspondence are often helpful. Sometimes it is easier for the autistic person to read correspondence with a contrast such as grey and white rather than black and white, which can be too overwhelming.
At Court the process can simply be beyond overwhelming, and even more so for the Autistic person, and therefore it is important to consider which representative to send to Court, to keep consistency and that, if necessary, applications are made for additional measures, for example attending remotely or alerting security to the need for a person on the spectrum to enter Court in a different manner. Courts are noisy places with bright lights and compounded with this being a first experience of the system, it can take an individual with an already heightened state of anxiety to completely overwhelm them.
I have worked with many Autistic clients and continue to make adjustments to help my clients through a difficult period in their life.
What I have also learnt about Autism myself is that the person with Autism will be constantly making adjustments to fit into a neurotypical society and often the greatest challenge faced is living within a society which has very little knowledge and education about a person with additional needs, and particularly Autism.
I am extremely proud and delighted to be The Advocate for The Autistic Client within the Family team at Ellisons. If this article is relevant to you please contact me on 01206 719680 or another member of the Family team.