Could you explain briefly the aims of the Autism Law Service at Nottingham Law School?
The aims of the Service are threefold: firstly, we are reviewing the Legal Advice Centre’s (LAC) procedures, policies and training to make our services and our premises more accessible to the autistic community. Secondly, we hope to develop specialist legal provision catered to the needs of autistic people. Finally, we intend to contribute to the policy conversations surrounding autism awareness and access to justice for people with autism.
What areas of law directly relate to autism?
We do not foresee issuing legal advice that would be substantively different to what we would provide to neurotypical clients. We have identified three priority areas of law to focus the Service on – Social Security (Welfare Benefits), Employment, and Special Educational Needs (SEN). We are more concerned with adapting our approach to communicating with our clients so that they can best engage with the legal system. The Service is less of a legal specialism and more about meeting the needs of a section of our community who need tailored support.
How does any work done within the Autism Law Service complement academic study?
As with the other pro bono projects we run at NLS, we think volunteering with the Service will enhance our students’ skill-set, particularly in regards to careful and empathetic client management. We hope that the training we provide to our volunteers will not only help them to support autistic clients, but vulnerable clients generally - an issue which is of increasing concern within the profession. With autistic people facing a complex array of challenges in the workplace, it’s clear that a service like this is necessary.
Could you go into a bit of detail about the law-related challenges faced by autistic individuals?
The LAC has seen a real need arise within social welfare benefits, and we believe that this is where the Service can have an immediate impact. The way in which the benefits system is framed inherently disadvantages autistic people. For example, in order to obtain Personal Independence Payment or Employment and Support Allowance, individuals have to attend a face-to-face consultation with a health professional, who determines whether they satisfy a set of (quite arbitrary and narrow) descriptors. For autistic people, who may be uncomfortable with social contact or need more time to process information, this model does not enable them to fully engage. They may need support in being able to articulate their wishes and understand what is being asked of them.
In the employment field, more abstract questions such as “could this ever happen?” may result in a yes answer, as in theory anything is possible. This may result in answers which whilst honest may be less desirable to a (prospective) employer.
For students looking to get involved in assisting autistic individuals in legal matters, what would you recommend?
An understanding of the autism spectrum and the potential impact of such conditions on individuals is extremely beneficial. We can help to provide training to benefit students. It is extremely important to be aware of the environment in which you meet/interview an autistic client – many people on the autistic spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information. Nottingham Trent University’s Student Support Services carried out an environmental audit of the LAC premises, to highlight external stimuli and to help us create a well-structured, supportive environment. For students interested in this service, becoming aware of the potential impact such an environment could have is a useful start point.
To find out more about Nottingham Law School, and the pro bono initiatives it has in place, visit the NLS website.
To find out more about autism, and to take part in Work Autism Awareness Week, visit the National Autism Society.