Impact of the law when a young person with autism spectrum disorder transitions to adulthood

29 Aug 2022

concept graphic of girl figure at different ages from child to adult

Transitioning into adulthood: An overview of the impact of the law when a young person on the autism spectrum transitions to adulthood

UQ Pro Bono Centre research for Autism Queensland

Autism Queensland is the state’s peak body in the provision of education and therapy services and support for people of all ages on the autism spectrum. It was therefore a privilege for the UQ Pro Bono Centre and three UQ Law Students to be involved in the research and development of an important new resource that would be used by Autism Queensland professionals to assist individuals, and their families, as they navigate their transition into adulthood. Law Students Julia Hegarty, Gabriela Roworth, and Georgia Paris Williams researched and prepared a paper outlining the decision-making human rights considerations for young autistic adults as they transitioned into adulthood. As part of their research, Julia, Gabriela and Georgia also reviewed what other resources were available nationally for young people and their families which may provide an additional level of support in their transition to adulthood.

When asked to describe the objective of the report, Gabriela noted:

“The report's objective was to understand the grey areas of a child's transition to adulthood and when a child is able to make decisions for themselves. Whilst the target audience was Autism Queensland staff and parents of children with autism, a key theme we encountered was that the transition years are unclear for all children irrespective of their experience living with autism.

The report concluded that a child's capacity and ability to make decisions are to be decided on a case-by-case basis to properly give each child the autonomy that is appropriate for them, and this continues after adulthood, particularly where/if the Guardianship and Administration Act 2000 (Qld) applies.”

The report notes that parents with non-autistic children are able to make most decisions for and on behalf of their young children, however as the child matures a parent’s decision- making influence diminishes. Health decisions for example, may be made by a child deemed to have capacity for consensual decision making (often referred to as Gillick competence) without parental interference. In the experience of parents of children on the spectrum they may be used to making decisions for and on behalf of their child, however, when the young person reaches adulthood, there is a more formal consideration as to whether the young person has capacity to make their own decisions. In terms of the test of capacity in Queensland, there is no fixed age (under 18) at which a young person is deemed to have ‘sufficient capacity’ to make decisions, particularly consent regarding their health care. The ‘Transitioning into Adulthood’ report provides an overview of the test of capacity in Queensland and its application for young people on the spectrum. Generally, for all adults the starting point of capacity is that capacity is presumed, unless proven otherwise. The report also outlines the Queensland Capacity Guidelines which should be followed in assessing capacity.

The report includes the benefit of Georgia, Gabriela and Julia’s literature reviews and their investigations into various resources regarding capacity and decision-making. They also conducted a detailed analysis of legislation, particularly the Guardianship and Administration Act 2000 (Qld) and the role of the Public Guardian. In addition to their final legal review outlined in the report, the students also provided Autism Queensland with guidance and recommendations in their development of other resources valuable to Autism Queensland’s continued support of families and young people on autism spectrum.

To conclude, when asked about the experience working on the project and the impact it has had on their learning or their future career, Gabriela Roworth shared:

“I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project both because I have a young cousin with autism and because it required a unique understanding of how the law interacts with children and individuals who are under the Guardianship and Administration Act's purview. I hope to continue exploring new areas of law at university and throughout my career to not only expand my own understanding of the world but to help others better understand their rights and the relevant legal processes available to them.” 

The students researched and wrote the report under the mentorship of Mandy Shircore, Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre.

They undertook this task on a pro bono basis during their university studies, without any academic credit or reward, as part of their ongoing contribution to service as future members of the legal profession.

Autism Queensland CEO Pam Macrossan acknowledged the importance of the work undertaken by the students to better inform service development and welcomed the opportunity to partner with the UQ Pro Bono Centre.

“This research, the resulting paper and resource review provides valuable input into our services and will inform the supports we put in place to help young people as they transition into adulthood and are faced with some serious life decisions,” said Pam.

“We will continue to work with the UQ Pro Bono Centre to translate the information in the reports into inclusive and accessible resources including infographics and short videos that will prove useful resources to support our work in this space going forward.”

Download the report

About the students

Gabriela Roworth is in her final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Business Management degree at the University of Queensland. Gabriela is also a member of the Pro Bono Centre’s Student Advisory Panel and is a UQ Pro Bono Leader.

Georgia Paris Williams is studying a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Arts degree (extended major in International Relations) at the University of Queensland. Georgia is also a member of the Human Rights Case Law Project with Professor Tamara Walsh.

Julia Hegarty is studying a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) Commerce degree at the University of Queensland. Julia is an active member of the UQ Pro Bono Centre and recently worked with Queensland Advocacy Incorporated on a joint venture project with Allens.