Home > Government Relations > Public Interest Lawyers Show Interest in Autism

Public Interest Lawyers Show Interest in Autism

This is a guest post by Lorri Unumb, Autism Speaks senior policy adviser and counsel. Lorri also teaches “Autism and the Law” at the George Washington University Law School.

Autism is a hot topic for discussion at various types of conferences these days, from epidemiologists to economists to educators.  You still, however, don’t often see autism on the agenda at legal conferences. That’s why I was so excited over the summer to have the opportunity to speak about autism legal issues at a national conference of legal aid attorneys and encouraged by the keen interest demonstrated by the lawyers in attendance.

Every state in the nation has at least one legal aid organization, which provides legal services to the poor, and a protection and advocacy organization, which provides legal services for the disabled. Lawyers who work at these organizations, as well as public defenders (who work in the criminal arena), are typically members of the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association (NLADA). As set forth in its website (www.nlada.org) NLADA champions effective legal assistance for people who cannot afford counsel, serves as a collective voice for both the civil legal aid and public defense communities throughout the nation, and provides a wide range of services and benefits to its individual and organizational members. Founded in 1911, NLADA is the oldest and largest national, nonprofit membership organization devoting all of its resources to promoting justice for all in the United States.

Among its activities, the NLADA holds national conferences and trainings for public interest lawyers. My husband, Dan Unumb, who is Director of Litigation at South Carolina’s legal aid organization, proposed trainings on “Representing Families with Autism” for two of NLADA’s summer conferences held jointly in July in Chicago. NLADA enthusiastically accepted and supported the proposal.

The first workshop was presented as part of the Litigation and Advocacy Directors Conference, which is designed for experienced litigation and advocacy directors to assist them in identifying, promoting, and pursuing cutting-edge legal issues in their programs.  A panel of five legal experts educated the attorneys on autism legal issues ranging from health insurance to special education to Medicaid. Presenting attorneys included Sue Tobin of Ohio Legal Rights Service and Sarah Somers of National Health Law Project on Medicaid issues, Tracey Spencer Walsh of Mayerson & Associates on special education law, and Dan and me on health insurance and other autism-related issues.

The second workshop was geared to front-line legal aid attorneys who handle day-to-day representation of low-income or disabled clients. At this workshop, Dan and I were joined by Kirby Mitchell, Managing Attorney of one of South Carolina Legal Services’ largest offices, to present a broad overview of legal issues surrounding autism including health insurance, special education, Medicaid and life-planning issues such as guardianship, conservatorships, custody and child support, hospital collection defense cases, bankruptcy, Medicaid trusts, tax planning, and Social Security disability actions.

The range of legal issues a family affected by autism may face is vast, and the need for lawyers, judges, and judicial staff to be educated on them is equally great.  This outreach is critical to improving legal representation, judicial decisions, and the overall response of the legal system to the complex challenges posed by autism.  This summer’s presentation was a good step in the right direction, and Autism Speaks is committed to making further inroads toward ensuring effective legal representation of families with autism.

  1. Kimberly
    September 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I am pleased to see these services available, however one area I think (legally) that needs to be addressed in today’s society is the need for knowledgable staff and legal aide when dealing with CUSTODY and autism. My son has Asperger’s and although recommendations were made against a typical arrangement for custody, the courts failed to head the neccessity of the special circumstances in our case. I am still fighting this one to this day, 25,000 dollars later and to no avail. I am pleased to note however, that the “father” in our situation rarely excercises visitation and has not done so for over a year (for various excuses although we feel it most likely has to do with the failed attempt in which he returned our son who was DISTRAUGHT AND UNCONSOLABLE at having to leave his home).

    The Family courts need to be more educated in these cases to do what in fact is BEST for the child, which may not be what is TYPICALLY best. I have also searched for someone to help us, but am unable to find someone to take the case unless I have thousands of dollars AGAIN, so I am forced to represent myself. But that is another topic.

    Thank you. :)

  2. September 29, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    This is a good resource designed for individuals in the legal sector. Please pass it on.

  3. September 29, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    There is a tremendous need for more pro-bono attorneys helping families with ASD’s. As an individual who does educational and other advocacy work for families on the spectrum a tremendous amount of the time, I cannot even begin to articulate the lack of appropriate legal services on their behalves, especially in the educational arena.

    I work with families all over the country and see on a continual basis that most of the schools are highly aware that most families don’t know their full rights, and are also not in a position to pursue due process if and when needed. This gives the school systems the bully pit, allowing them to deny practically anything they choose, knowing these families do not have the ability to represent themselves and do not have the funding to hire an attorney on their behalf.

    Here in the Memphis Metropolitan Area, there is one legal advocacy group, but they are no longer doing any educational advocacy work within the school systems, such as due process for IFSP/IEP’s.

    I have been spending a tremendous amount of time putting together training resources, based on the FEDERAL MANDATE, so it should not change by state, to help the families without access to appropriate resources. This can at least provide families with a way to learn to advocate on their own behalf, with some understanding of the law and how to navigate through the waters of a difficult IEP process.

    You can check out the FREE resources at http://www.youtube.com/autismsolutioncenter
    and this is a 9 part IEP Navigation Series. Hope you find it helpful and spread this resource to others who might benefit from it.


    Laura Corby, Founder/CEO
    Autism Solution Center, Inc.

  4. Heidi K
    September 30, 2010 at 1:48 am

    I am thankful for this as well. The school district where I live forced me into the corner and I finally had to consult Advocacy Incorporated. They have only represented us for a few weeks but we are already having to request mediation. It is just sad that we have to fight for our children this way. If the school district had their way my son would be locked up in juvenile corrections so the school staff doesn’t have to learn how to not provoke a disabled child.

  5. claudia castaneda
    October 27, 2010 at 2:29 am

    My mom has run into probably the most difficult situation so far in my adult brothers life. My sweet autistic brother has a behavior as people call it .. Giving hugs to strangers. He attempted to hug a neighbor lady in the same apartment complex where he lives with our mother and 1 older brother. They both witnessed that he never touched the lady. my mom tried to explain & apologize for him but the lady ignored her & walked off to her apt. well the lady complained to her family then the apt. site manager. 2 days later my mom received a 30 days notice to move out of her unit without explanation she says she doesnt have to give a reason. we’ve all tried to talk to the landlords they wont budge to give my mom more time to move. my mom has never had anything like this happen to her before. shes seeked legal representation & all hes got to say is she should move out before the 30 days. why cant they give her more time without an eviction. My mom has been denied for eviction even before being evicted.

  6. claudia castaneda
    October 27, 2010 at 3:00 am

    Part 2 of my previous comment. Everyone we’vve seeked help from has told us to hurry and move out and sorry we dont deal with that or even that they dont want to get involved. i have never experienced so much rejection from so many different people and organizations. how are there so many that dont want to help an elderly mother of an adult son with autism? We have come to dead end after dead end on a daily attempt to find people with compassion & understanding with answers solutions something positive. negativity is all around us. why should my loving innocent brother be put into a “home”? because 1 lady doesnt like or want to accept a hug from another human being. are hugs against the law? Are his hugs contaminated with disease? He never touched the lady at all. the worst part is she took her complaint to the police. she states that my brother grabbed her chest & backside & stuckout his tongue to kiss her. how & why does she lie? he never got to give her a hug .. witnesses. I am so sad!!!

  7. Susan
    October 31, 2010 at 1:04 am

    I am so sorry to read of your plight. I have a child with Autism that does tends to hug people. Some are ok with it some are not. He doesn’t have an evil bone in his body. Sad thing is if our loved ones with Autism ” looked” different there would not be a problem. Because most look ” normal” thier behaviors are not tolerated. I fear they day he becomes 18 and may be charged with a crime by ” hugging” someone.

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