Neurodiversity and family law: embracing, navigating and mapping the future 

This workshop at the Resolution Family Practice Conference in Nottingham encouraged us all to do more to support neurodiverse clients and colleagues

Following on from their inspirational keynote speech, Ravi Kaur Mahey (Duncan Lewis Solicitors) and Kelly Pougher (Pougher-Round Solicitors) hosted an incredibly important and insightful workshop covering how we should embrace and navigate neurodiversity within family law, both personally and in the workplace. The workshop involved a very honest and raw account from both speakers of their personal experiences. This inspired widespread audience participation, encouraging members in attendance to open up about their own personal experiences too.

Neurodivergence is a term used to describe the unique ways in which people’s brains work, namely, having a brain that differs from the “average” (neurotypical) person. It is an umbrella term that includes autism, attention deficit disorders (ADD and ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndromes, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. You cannot usually tell that a person is neurodivergent simply by looking at them and, unfortunately, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation when it comes to neurodiversity, heightened by stereotypes that are deeply ingrained within our society. Due to the invisibility of neurodiversity as a whole, a high number of neurodivergent people are not being diagnosed until later on in life, which means that they often spend a significant portion of their life having their needs misunderstood and overlooked, with insufficient support mechanisms in place in both the workplace and wider society.

Ravi shared her experience of embracing her diagnosis and opened up about how she has learnt from her own experiences to support her team and her clients. Championing positive change, Ravi highlighted the crucial importance of being the change that you want to see – it is about time, and long-overdue, that we fully embrace neurodiversity in our workplace. To do so, we need to drop stereotypes and assumptions and instead provide the support and education necessary to allow everyone to thrive. Ravi made clear that if you have ideas about how to improve wellbeing, you should take this to the top of your organisation – advocate for reform within your institutions to ensure that no one is left in a position where they cannot be themselves or are unsupported at work. Ravi emphasised that each of us has an important role to play in ensuring that we fully embrace neurodiversity in our day-to-day lives.

Ravi made some suggestions about how we can, within our organisations, support ourselves and our colleagues. She spoke highly about employee assistance programmes, such as Health Assured, which offer suitable counselling to employees in an affordable and accessible way. She also shared that her team meet frequently to have informal discussions, which builds a safe space to share what is going on in their personal lives, recognising that personal challenges often impact our ability to work. Ravi highlighted that it is crucial we are open and create atmospheres of trust and understanding in our teams.

Ravi was exploring the question of how we can all do better to support neurodivergence. She pointed out that Resolution can help find the necessary answers and solutions. The topic needs to be properly navigated because we can quite clearly identify the issues (a lack of support and education), but what is important is to work out how to best manage this. Ravi has produced a sample policy document regarding neurodiversity in law, which covers important topics including how we can support people in the workplace with suitable adjustments, and what barriers we can remove which hinder disabled people from accessing jobs, buildings, or services, including invisible barriers such as attitudes and perceptions. I strongly encourage you to read the policy document and circulate it within your organisations. There needs to be a culture change within law (and society more widely!) and having a firm-wide policy on neurodiversity is a great starting point.

Kelly shared her personal experience of autism and shared very important lessons about how to approach neurodiversity with clients. She highlighted the importance of opening up conversations: ask clients whether they are neurodiverse, and/or whether they require any additional reasonable adjustments. She said that we need to champion our clients and help them to access the legal system in a way that considers their needs. The best way to find out if your client is neurodiverse and requires any additional adjustments is to ask. A starting point is to raise the question in your initial letter of engagement, explaining that if there is anything you can do to make the process easier for the client, they should tell you. Adjustments can be as straightforward as using bullet points in emails, or splitting tasks into manageable chunks for the client.

Kelly emphasised that it is helpful to remember that neurotypical brains and neurodivergent brains have a lot of things in common. For example, very few people like change and to some extent, a common response to change by everyone, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, is demand avoidance in some way, shape or form. Demand avoidant behaviours (ie avoiding demands or situations which may trigger sensory overload or anxiety in some form) are displayed to differing degrees by us all. A key takeaway message was that it is absolutely crucial that we educate everyone on neurodiversity. This should be non-negotiable, especially when it comes to our clients – it is unacceptable not to have awareness and understanding. We owe a duty to our clients, and our colleagues/teams, to take steps to become educated and make positive change. The more understanding we have, the greater our impact for change can be.

Both Kelly and Ravi highlighted the importance of being careful about the language that we use when discussing or asking about neurodiversity. Avoid questions that place blame, or are rooted in stereotypes/misunderstanding, as these can be very hurtful. For example, Kelly shared that sometimes when you mention the word autism, it conjures up an image that is so far from reality. The resounding lesson was “if you do not know about something, do not comment on it – instead, take steps to get educated about appropriate language”. Whilst labels are not ideal, they are all we have to work with at the moment. A client (or colleague) might have a preference about the terminology used for their neurodivergence, some do not mind the term disability or disorder, others prefer terms such as executive dysfunction – the best way to find out someone’s preference is to ask the question.

There is a lack of knowledge about neurodiversity from professionals, including social workers and amongst the judiciary, and the impact that this can have on a case is often undermining given we have a reactionary system, rather than a proactive one. We really need to be asking ourselves: what is my client’s profile? As a result, what are my client’s needs and what adjustments should be implemented? Another way to be proactive is to introduce broader training which teaches us all to embrace our differences.

I would encourage all practitioners to take time to reflect on what more can be done within your organisations to support your neurodiverse colleagues and clients. Ask the questions, be brave with promoting reforms where needed and educate yourself as much as possible. If you are interested in reading the neurodiversity policy document that Ravi has produced, please do get in touch via to request a copy.