With April being Autism Awareness Month, I am reminded that – for a divorcing couple who has a child with special needs – a collaborative divorce offers the best way for the parents to come to an agreement on addressing the needs of the child.
About ten years ago, I worked on a collaborative divorce in Westchester County in which the couple had two children, one of whom had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I represented the husband, and another collaborative attorney, “Lisa,” represented the wife.
The parties were having heated arguments about parental decision-making.
The defining moment in the case occurred at a four-way settlement conference when, after a few niceties were exchanged, the wife suddenly lashed out at the husband, exclaiming how upset she was at his criticism of her decision-making with respect to their child, and the various therapies she wanted him to undergo.
Specifically, she accused her husband of telling her that – if she wants the child involved in certain programs to treat his autism and the child becomes labeled “handicapped”— then it will be “on her”(her responsibility) for “ruining the child’s life.” The husband then expressed his strong feelings in his own defense.
At this point Lisa and I “reframed” the situation. (Reframing is a collaborative technique that can provide a different perspective on a situation, person or relationship.)
I interjected: “What I am hearing from both of you is that both of you have strong feelings about your child, you are both very concerned about your child, and that you both want what is best for him. That is a very good thing.”
Lisa then said that parenting a disabled child is very hard to do, and it puts a strain on the relationship of any married couple. Lisa went on to say that she knows this from personal experience because she is the mother of a developmentally disabled adult. The stress that resulted from dealing with that child’s needs contributed to the breakdown of her own marriage.
What followed was two minutes of silence. The mood in that conference room completely changed. Our reframe of the parents’ motives, along with Lisa’s courage and transparency, transformed the conversation.
After the silence, the husband made a settlement proposal to the wife which she accepted, and we had a meeting of the minds on the basic terms of a settlement on custody and visitation.
If this couple had not opted for a collaborative divorce process, it is highly unlikely that the above dialogue would have taken place. Most lawyers are not trained in reframing or other collaborative techniques. They certainly haven’t been taught to make themselves vulnerable by sharing painful personal stories at the negotiating table!
I worked on this case early in my experience with collaborative divorce in Westchester County. It had a profound impact on me; indeed, I consider it to be a rare epiphany in my 35-year legal career. That experience, and others in my collaborative career, convinced me that most divorcing couples with children – and especially those with special needs children – are best served by opting for collaborative divorce rather than engaging in an expensive and protracted court battle.
Moreover, most judges, family court counselors and custody evaluators, and attorneys know very little about the daily challenges of parenting a child with autism. To put the decisions about an autistic child’s custody and support in the hands of the court system is unwise. Here is an excellent article from Psychology Today that gives a specific example of the kinds of mistakes that judges and custody evaluators can make when making decisions about a child with autism: