Giving autistic people equal access to legal services

Dean Anthony Da Conceicao, Helpline Operations Manager at the National Autistic Society, hears daily how autistic people can be overlooked by legal services. He offers some top tips to ensure that consumers with autism get the support they need and deserve.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability. More than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, including around 700,000 people in the UK. Being autistic means that someone sees, hears and feels the world in a different, often more intense way to other people.

Autistic people often find social situations difficult and struggle to filter out the sounds, smells, sights and information they experience, which can make the world an overwhelming place.

While all autistic people share similar qualities, no two autistic people are the same. Every person and every individual will have different support needs.

Why is it important autistic people are understood within legal services?   

Most people will need to access legal services of some kind in their lifetime, including autistic people. This could be anything from buying a house, making a will, and getting divorced to being a victim, witness or defendant in the criminal justice system.

From the people that we speak to on the National Autistic Society’s Helpline, we know that the additional needs of autistic people can be overlooked or missed by legal services, leaving them without necessary support, sometimes, at times of high anxiety.

What barriers can autistic people face accessing legal services?

Autistic people can find the sheer range of legal services, and level of information available, overwhelming. It can also be hard to engage with legal services, particularly if they’re dealing with an organisation or individual they’ve never met before and if it’s about a complex, personal or potentially distressing issue.

One of the biggest barriers for some autistic people is speaking on the phone, which can cause a lot of anxiety. A simple way around this is to have the option of communicating via email and offering each person this choice. Offering a single point of contact can also help to reduce anxiety around talking to new people.

General tips

Every autistic person is different, so there’s not a single form of communication that will work for everyone. But, here are some straightforward tips:

  • Try to use clear language

Many autistic people have a very literal understanding of language and struggle to understand metaphors and abstract concepts. The clearer and more specific you can be, the better.

  • Avoid open ended questions

Some autistic people find lots of options overwhelming.

  • Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments

Some autistic people are very sensitive to light and sound. For instance, a strong overhead light or busy printer can be incredibly distracting and make it hard to focus. If you’re meeting someone face-to-face small adjustments, like moving the discussion to a different area of the office, can help.

  • Try to stick to agreed plans and give advance warning of any changes

The world can be an unpredictable, confusing place for autistic people, and that makes a set routine crucial for getting by. So when something unexpected happens, it can feel like the whole world is spinning out of control. Sticking to agreed plans, or giving as much notice as possible about changes, can reduce this anxiety.

  • Make sure to give autistic people enough time to process questions

Some autistic people struggle to filter large amounts of information at once and need a few moments to process. Ask one question as simply as you can, and just wait. If you still don’t get a response, try rephrasing it slightly or writing it down instead.

  • Remember that some autistic people have difficulty making eye contact or find physical contact difficult and try to avoid handshakes

This doesn’t mean someone isn’t listening or is impolite.

  • Try make sure you have a quiet space for autistic people to go, if they’re feeling overwhelmed

It’s often the smallest changes that make the biggest difference. A basic understanding of autism can open up legal services autistic people.

Where can I go for more information?

To find out more about autism and the information, advice and training that’s available, please visit the National Autistic Society’s website

For a list of legal advisers with experience of autism, please click here

For specific information about criminal justice, please click here


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