Autism and Divorce: Custody and Time-Sharing With a Special Needs Child

Autism and divorce often bring additional challenges not relevant to other divorcing couples.  We’ve outlined a few tips for you that address autism as well as other special needs children.  Let’s start with the basics.

According to the CDC, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Unlike other developmental disabilities, there is often nothing about how people look that sets them apart.  However, people with ASD may communicate and behave differently as well as interact and learn differently from other people.

An estimated 1 in 68 school-aged children has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to a recently published CDC’s  Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network report. This report shows an increase of over 119%, since the year 2000, in ASD prevalence.  This report from the CDC also indicates that Autism is the fastest-growing disability, increasing in rate by 6-15% each year, affecting more than 3.5 million Americans.

A government survey has recently suggested that 1 in 45 children, between the ages of 3-17, have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The parent survey results are from the 2014 National Health Interview Survey. Conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, it is the most in-depth study of its kind in the United States.

The following are some helpful tips if you are dealing with autism and divorce or you have a special needs child.

Special Consideration for Disabilities

Children with disabilities, including Autism, are particularly vulnerable to adverse consequences when their families are facing divorce and custody issues. A standard parenting and financial plan, and time-sharing plan may not be suitable, or in the best interest, of a special needs child.  If you are parents of an autistic child, there needs to be special consideration for their disability.

A standard time-sharing plan may provide for the child to be with Mother on particular days during the week, and Father on other certain days, with alternating weekends.  However, for a child with Autism, who has difficulty with transitions, this schedule could be stressful and even harmful to their well-being and developmental growth.

Special Physical and Therapy Needs

If a child has special physical needs and requires transfer equipment or special lifting equipment, which may be located at only one parent’s house, and the standard parenting plan provides for extended visitation at the other parent’s house, the child may be greatly inconvenienced because of the physical transfer logistics.

With children with special needs or autism and divorce, a standard time-sharing plan may prove negative results for a child who needs regular therapy appointments, as many treatments for school-age children are in the afternoon and early evening. If the time-sharing plan sets aside certain days for a parent, without consideration as to whether that parent is available to take the child to their therapy, the child might miss their scheduled treatments, and lose a valuable opportunity for advancement.

Financial Considerations for the Special Needs Child

Family finances will be impacted by the special needs and therapies of the child. This would include costs for doctors, surgeries, hospitalizations, therapists, medications, specialized equipment, home environment logistics, home treatment supplies, non-parent caregiver, school supplies, deductibles and other medical costs; the list goes on and on…

One of the parents may need to devote extra time to the care of their child, which would cause their household income to take a direct hit, with the possible loss of promotions, loss of wages, or possibly the loss of employment.

Florida Senate House Bill (HB39) Passed

Following last summer’s shooting in N. Miami Florida, involving a behavioral therapist and his autistic patient, a push for legislation occurred after the unarmed therapist was shot and injured while protecting his severely autistic client. The autistic man had been the intended target in the shooting. Following the shooting, advocates for autistic people called for more training for officers.

As a result, Florida Senate House members unanimously passed a bill, HB39, which will provide Autism awareness training for police officers across the state, to help them recognize symptoms and respond accordingly.

Be Prepared

There is currently lots of information available within the Florida educational system, our healthcare system, our governmental benefits, and now growing in our state-wide law enforcement agencies. With that said, there is room for growth and clarification, and for further awareness and special provisions regarding custody and time-sharing plans for a child with special needs.

While we continue to encourage growth and outreach within the Florida Family Law forum, there are proactive steps we can take, to ensure that the best interest of your special needs child is first and foremost during a divorce:

  • Keep in close contact with your school’s officials and continue to update your IEP (Individual Education Plan) as well as other assessments and reports with your child’s teachers and therapists.
  • Obtain any other medical and therapy records and provide copies of these documents to your divorce attorney.
  • Learn about your child’s medications and how they affect your child.
  • Communicate with your divorce attorney any special routines or schedules that your child requires, on a daily basis.
  • Provide a written schedule of therapy, medical procedures, school programs and activities of your child for your attorney to use as a reference when tailoring your time-sharing schedule.

Long-Lasting Effects

A child custody/time-sharing dispute can be one of the most challenging and stressful issues involving autism and divorce. The outcome of your case will have a long-lasting effect on your family and your finances.  Since 1988, Eric C. Cheshire has passionately litigated Family Law cases, providing a strong advocacy for the rights and best interests of families and children in these important matters.  Our firm has had the opportunity to help families with children on the Autism Spectrum, navigate through this process with the support they deserve.

The West Palm Beach Law Office of Eric C. Cheshire, P.A. is committed to providing you with the personal attention and expertise you need during this difficult time. We will be by your side, every step of the way. Give us a call to schedule your consultation at (561) 655-8844.

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