Australia: Spectrum disorders and divorce: Post-separation parenting arrangements for children with high needs

Last Updated: 10 March 2016
Article by Rachael Murray and Fraser Murray

With both the rate of spectrum order diagnoses and the rate of divorce increasing each year, Australian Family Courts are faced with an ever increasing number of proceedings involving parents of children with a spectrum disorder. In this alert, Associate Fraser Murray and Partner Rachael Murray discuss some useful strategies to limit the impact of divorce on these children and provide some practical assistance to parents in relation to what factors the Court would take into account if required to determine what parenting arrangements best meet the needs of their children.

One in one hundred children are diagnosed with a brain disorder affecting their social and communication skills, ranging on a spectrum from mild to severe. It is widely accepted that children with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome Disorder, who symptomatically have specific habits and behavioural patterns, are best supported by structure, routine and predictability. Undeniably (and while no doubt rewarding) parenting an Aspergic or autistic child is an intensive, challenging and, at times, incredibly difficult responsibility.

Even in an intact family, a diagnosis of autism can place a heavy strain on the household. In addition to emotional stresses, there can be significant financial consequences. A parent may have to leave his or her career to care for the child or to be available to transport the child to therapy sessions. The other parent might have to work extended hours in order to help pay for the cost of private therapy. Both parents likely must forego leisure time to learn therapy reinforcement techniques and then apply them on a scheduled basis with the child. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, these unforeseen pressures can have a fractious impact on otherwise sound relationships, leading or in part contributing to separation and disputes in relation to post separation parenting arrangements.

Limiting the impact of divorce

As clinical psychologist Vincent Papaleo has described it, divorce represents loss in all circumstances to a child. Not only is there the loss of the family unit and the regular contact with either or both parents, but in more extreme cases, there can be the loss of a parent completely, loss of extended family, there can be social dislocation in matters involving relocation and the loss to the child of friends, community, school and other familiar social and support networks.

The aim must be to minimise loss wherever possible, maintain the child's normal supports and sustain as much security and regular routine as is practical. Minimising loss adheres to the fundamental principle of healthy development, of creating a stable, consistent and predictable environment, and for this to extend to relationships with family, peer relations and community. This applies to all children experiencing separation of their parents.

Post separation parenting arrangements

In many cases, a parent may initially seek shared care of the child (where each parent has the child approximately fifty percent of the time). Whilst shared care or equal time may sound "fair" on paper, such an arrangement may not necessarily be in the best interests of a child, especially children with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome Disorder.

Because autistic children often have difficulty generalising what they learn, it is in the child's best interests for both parents to constantly reinforce the child's learning with coordinated consistency. The back and forth nature of shared care may be counter to the need of an autistic child to have a predictable and consistent schedule. The reality is that an autistic child may have enough hurdles to overcome without further complicating matters with an overly repetitious back and forth schedule.

Research shows that autistic children do not cope well with inconsistencies in their schedules, and a child's need for a regimented schedule of behavioural therapy could be compromised if the child has to be passed between two households with two different methods of overseeing his or her development. Parents must acknowledge that whilst it is the role of professionals to develop, oversee and administer the child's therapy, it is critical for parents and other family members of the autistic child to learn how to reinforce that therapy at home.

For those reasons, even the most well intentioned parents with the most synchronised efforts may unknowingly be compromising their child's need for consistency with a shared parenting arrangement. Unless there is reason to believe that the separating parents can effectively work together or consistently co-ordinate their schedules to seamlessly reinforce the child's therapy and progress from one household to another, shared parenting might not be in the autistic child's best interest. This is particularly so in post separation arrangements involving parents that do not have the ability to communicate with clarity or effectively co-parent a child.

Additional considerations

Whether parenting matters involving children with a spectrum disorder are negotiated between the parents or require determination in the Family Courts, consideration should be given to the following questions:

  • What is each parent's acknowledgement and acceptance of the child's autistic disorder, as opposed to a denial of the condition?
  • What is each parent's ability to reinforce and follow through on daily basis, recommended behavioural interventions for the autistic child, and the level of participation the parent has in working with the autistic child?
  • What is each parent's ability to manage the emotional and psychological stress involved with raising an autistic child on a daily basis?

These questions are additional considerations to those that are prescribed by the Family Law Act which inform parents, legal advisors and the judiciary of the legislative considerations applied to parenting matters in Australia.

It makes sense that given the increasing rates of both spectrum disorders and divorce in Australia, lawyers and judges are constantly facing new, complex and individual cases where families of autistic children are in need of legal assistance or judicial intervention. In all circumstances, the challenge for the Family Courts is to treat both parents fairly and equitably while safeguarding the needs and best interests of the child as a paramount concern.

The HopgoodGanim family law team regularly assist parents to negotiate arrangements or seek orders with respect to their children with high needs, including those with spectrum disorders. We offer early intervention, support and pragmatic advice to parents requiring advice in relation to complex parenting disputes and we work together with parents and other medical and helping professionals to ensure that the best interests of the children are advanced and promoted at all times.

© HopgoodGanim Lawyers

Award-winning law firm HopgoodGanim offers commercially-focused advice, coupled with reliable and responsive service, to clients throughout Australia and across international borders.

2015 AFR Beaton Client Choice Awards:
Best Law Firm (revenue $50m - $200m)
Best Professional Services Firm (revenue $50m - $200m)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Rachael Murray
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.