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Parents with Autism Spectrum Condition and Care Proceedings

This weeks blog is brought to you by Sarah Preest -pupil to Ravi Randawa

D and E (Parent with Autism) [2020] EWFC [144]“Mild autism doesn’t mean one experiences autism mildly… It means you experience their autism mildly.”

It is essential that a parent with an autism spectrum condition receives a diagnosis as soon as is practicable within proceedings. Obtaining a diagnosis is essential to ensure the correct procedure and adaptations are in place for proceedings. In addition, it is probably more important, that adaptations are made to the assessment and any support provided to the parent ensuring the court has all the relevant information in a timely manner.

No parent must be precluded from being able to parent effectively on the account of disability. There is a risk that professionals may apply a set of criteria or expectations without fully exploring the parent’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is not uncommon for people to be diagnosed with autism later in life following events of extreme stress, which can trigger anxiety and demonstrably autistic behaviour. It is extremely common for women to be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all.

Useful Resources

  • Equal Treatment Bench Book (Chapter 4 Mental Disability)
  • The National Autistic Society
  • Department of Health guidance for social workers on dealing with autistic people.

 

Background

Autism, including Asperger syndrome is a lifelong developmental disability, affecting how people communicate with others and sense the world around them. It is estimated that 1.1% of people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum (Circa 700,000 people). Although autistic people will share certain characteristics, everyone will be different.

Re D and E [41],autistic characteristics are likely to include difficulties with communication, understanding body language, including the body language and emotional needs of children, appearing insensitive to the views and needs of others, a strong sense of right and wrong with sensitivity to perceived injustice and a somewhat ‘black and white’ view of issues and demonstrating overt emotional responses to perceived injustice. Such individual may have a reliance upon tried and tested behavioural process and experience greater difficulties than others in demonstrating parental flexibility and the adoption of new parental skills. Reports that such parents have experienced difficulty benefitting from advice and guidance from professionals over time would be entirely consistent with the presence of autistic traits.”

 

There is no psychological therapy available to reduce or eliminate autism and medication is not recommended as a treatment for autism.

Assessments and Formal Meetings

In formal settings such as meetings there is a possibility the parent will be affected by sensory input, which include verbal discussions that are complex or involve multiple speakers. Early consideration should be undertaken as the sensory input may disadvantage the parent. Verbal or didactically presented information and long discussions will be more difficult for the parent to interact with.

Lack of eye contact, a lack of recognition of emotional cues and social cues, giving short answers, having a blank expression and having rigid routines, are all features of Autism Spectrum Disorder and should be considered when conducting any assessment.

 

All professionals involved with the parent should take into the account any diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Professionals should:

  1. Give clear, slow and direct instructions. Ensure that questions are direct, clear and focused to avoid confusion.
  2. People with autism often understand visual information better than spoken words. It may be useful to use visual supports/aids, such as drawings or photos, to explain what is happening. It may be useful to put information in writing.
  3. Avoid using sarcasm, metaphors or irony.
  4. Keep language clear, concise and simple: use short sentences and direct commands.
  5. Allow extra time to respond as people with autism may take a long time to digest information before answering, so do not move on to another question too quickly.
  6. Reinforce gestures with a statement to avoid misunderstanding.
  7. People with autism can take things literally, causing huge misunderstandings.
  8. People with autism may respond to questions without understanding the implication of what they are saying, or they may agree with you simply because they think this is what they are supposed to do.

 

The parent may well benefit from understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder which will allow then to understand their limitations and strengths. Information can be obtained from the National Autistic Society or from the local Adult Autism Support Service.

To ensure the best evidence and assessments are obtained they should be produced by a professional with a specialism of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Difficulties with the legal process
Guidance provided in the Equal Treatment of Bench Book outlines some reasonable adjustments that may be required to support autistic parents:

  1. Giving very explicit instructions on all case management directions.
  2. Aiming to keep the same judge in all preliminary hearings.
  3. Explaining in advance what the hearing procedure will be like.
  4. Providing a written timetable.
  5. Explaining that the party can visit the hearing venue in advance to look around.
  6. Reducing anxiety by reserving a private waiting/conference room for use by the autistic person rather than the general waiting room and telling the party that this will be arranged.
  7. Preparing a simple chronology of dates which are personal to the individual as reference points.
  8. Explaining the procedure at the outset of the hearing including the length and timing of breaks.
  9. Providing regular breaks, such as 10-minute breaks after every 60 minutes in court to prevent anxiety escalating and other symptoms developing as a result.
  10. Arranging appropriate seating: asking the person where they would like to sit such as a preference to sit near a door as an escape route.
  11. Preventing people going in and out of the room or moving behind the individual.
  12. Switching off lights, fans and heaters with any humming sound however quiet, allowing the party to wear sunglasses or a hat and the use of window blinds.
  13. Establishing ground rules at the outset in terms of appropriate styles of questioning.
  14. Avoiding figurative communication, such as ‘take a seat.’
  15. Avoiding hypothetical questions, both regarding the substance of the person’s evidence and regarding court procedure.
  16. Avoiding legal jargon.

 

Anxiety will most likely be the overriding difficulty that an autistic person will face in court. This will affect a person’s ability to use communication strategies. As a result:

 

  1. The person’s body language and non-verbal communication may come across as
  2. Their voice may become louder, and they may shout.
  3. They may use stimming to self-regulate anxiety. (‘Stimming’ is fidgeting, flapping,scratching, picking, humming, coughing – these are coping mechanisms.)
  4. They may be visibly distressed and start crying.

 

Summary

Re D and E highlights the clear need for parents with autistic spectrum disorders to be diagnosed as soon as possible into proceedings. This will allow for the correct measures and procedures to be adopted within assessments and the support provided to the parent.

Reasonable adjustments ensure, as far as is possible, that the Court process is accessible and provides the best opportunity for the parent to participate effectively in proceedings.

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