There are approximately 700,000 people in the UK with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to a study by the NHS. This means that ASD affects 1 in 100 people, and affects individuals as well as families. Individuals with an ASD can be anywhere on the spectrum, and symptoms vary. Whilst there are urban legends that 80% of marriages end in divorce when there is an autistic child in the family, the reality is that divorce in a family with autistic children is no less likely than between parents of children without autism.
Nevertheless, where a couple do decide to end their relationship and they have children with an ASD, whether suspected or diagnosed, it is important to consider certain factors that may not necessarily be relevant in cases where children are not autistic.
If a child of the family has not yet been diagnosed with autism, their behaviour may be displayed as being problematic and this can be incorrectly blamed on either or both parents. This can become exaggerated during a dispute, as parents are often held to a higher standard and they can be over critical of each other.
It is therefore important at the start of any dispute with your partner that you make it clear to your legal representative that you are concerned about your child having an ASD, especially if it has not already been diagnosed. Orders can be made for assessments or reports to be made to ascertain whether your child does have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, although there is often a delay with preparing these assessments and therefore it is important to try and get them started as early as possible. The assessments can assist the Court and the parents in deciding what is best for your child going forward, and may help place some perspective on a situation where your child is displaying challenging behaviour.
For most children with an ASD, communication and structure is crucial. If there is no clear and regular pattern to where the child will live and when they will see each parent, this can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. This stress can manifest itself as a reluctance to go with the non-resident parent, which may result in the resident parent being reluctant to let arrangements continue.
To help children transition smoothly into a new arrangement, it is a good idea to provide visual timetables and calendars so that your child feels informed and comfortable with the changes that are to happen in the future. It can also help if both parents communicate with each other and with their child so that their child feels supported.
The child’s age should also be considered when making arrangements, as timetables may need to develop and adjust alongside the child as they get older and their ASD changes with them. Time needs to be allowed for these changes, so that the child can adapt comfortably, and these revision periods could be factored into an Order made by the Court or decided between both parents.
As with all family cases, each one is different and has its own set of facts. Nevertheless, there are some general points that could be considered.
For example, if there are other children in the family who do not have an ASD the parents may want to arrange for them to spend time with their parents alone, as children with an ASD can be quite demanding.
Safety should also be considered when making arrangements. For example, children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder will often be self-absorbed, and be unaware of a danger around them. This can mean that it is not safe for them to walk home from school alone or be alone in the family home.
With regard to hygiene, where the child is a girl, menstruation can be quite overwhelming and the parents may want to prepare a timetable which reflects their child’s monthly cycle. This can help reduce any anxiety the child might feel.
Finally, it is important for both parents to be educated in how to parent a child with an ASD, both together and separately. There are course through the National Autistic Society, namely the Early Bird or Early Bird Plus Programme. Barnardos also host the Cygnet Programme to help parents. If you believe these courses would be beneficial and would like a Judge to order that you both attend, it helps to do some research before going to Court so that you can put these proposals to the Judge in a clear and precise manner. If the Judge knows all the facts about these courses, then it is more likely they will see the merit in attending one and place it in an Order.