At the beginning of August 2023, HMCTS joined the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower network. This is a scheme that allows people with a hidden disability to access the support they need. It’s estimated that 70-80% of disabilities are hidden, and such disabilities include autism and ADHD, as well as mental health conditions and chronic conditions such as Crohns disease. People with a hidden disability can wear a sunflower lanyard, which is designed to alert others who are trained about the lanyard to recognise that the person wearing it may have a hidden disability and may require additional help. It also allows for this to be done in a discrete way. Many airports, supermarkets and businesses are already members of the scheme and it is a positive step by HMCTS to support those service users with a hidden disability that they have joined the scheme.
The reason this announcement caught my eye is a personal one. My knowledge of the sunflower lanyard came about from having an autistic child who has benefitted on occasion from the help offered when someone has noticed their lanyard. And it made me think, in my work, what I can do to help those I come into contact with who are neuro-divergent?
In terms of the family justice system, there is a movement for change and improved guidelines for dealing with autistic adults and children involved in the family justice system, but there is still much to be done. HMCTS joining the sunflower network is a good step, but this only helps those involved in our work when they are attending court. We need to consider all the other times provision may need to be made for a child or adult with autism who we come across in our work.
There is a saying that “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”, which I have discovered to be very much true, in that everyone’s needs are different. So I hesitate to offer any blanket advice; but there are definitely some things we can all consider when dealing with someone who is neurodiverse. The first thing to bear in mind is that the world is very much set up for those who are neurotypical, so many ordinary, day to days requirements and interactions that would barely register with a neurotypical person may be incredibly stressful for a neurodiverse one. Talking to strangers, taking public transport, going to a new place – all of these can be extremely stressful to someone with autism. And if you think of a typical care case it is likely that to involve all of these and more! So think of what you can do to help.
For instance, if you need to meet with your autistic client, consider how you will do this. People with autism can often find it difficult to read facial expressions or tone of voice and can struggle to understand euphemisms or common expressions. Therefore, you might need to consider if it is acceptable to conduct the meeting over the phone or whether it is better to conduct the meeting over video or in person. You will also need to consider how you phrase what you say to them so that they can understand you clearly, and it is often helpful to outline each topic you will talk about, keep questions and statements simple and highlight when you are changing topic. You also need to think about if they will be able to cope with coming to see you at your office or if you might want to visit them at home, where they will feel more comfortable.
In terms of other work within a family law case involving a neurodiverse person, consideration needs to be given to ensuring that the people involved with the family, such as family support workers or parenting assessors, have experience in dealing with individuals with autism. This is because how neurodiverse people present to the world can be quite different to how neurotypical people present, and it is important that they are not misjudged as a result. As an example, what could look to someone without the necessary knowledge and experience as a child having a meltdown and a parent being unable to deal with it, may in fact be autistic behaviour that cannot be avoided by that individual. It is important that if your client is being assessed and either they or their children are autistic, this is taken into account in any assessment.
It is also important to note that as many standard interactions for neurotypical people will be far more challenging and draining for a neurodiverse person, it is necessary to ensure they are not overloaded with appointments (e.g. assessments, contact, meetings with professionals) and have time to recover. This is often referred to as “energy accounting” and is an important aspect to bear in mind when dealing with those who are neurodiverse.
In summary, in a world created with neurotypical people in mind, it is important to take some time to think of those neurodiverse people trying to navigate it and see what we can do to make that a little easier.