Opening Statements

Autism awareness project trains Pennsylvania's juvenile judges

  • Print

Tammy Hughes

Tammy Hughes. Photograph by Chandler Crowell.

For children with autism, social interaction, communication and behavioral development are common challenges. Those challenges are compounded when an autistic child gets wrapped up in the criminal justice system.

Sadly, there’s an overrepresentation of kids with autism in the juvenile justice system, and they often respond in unanticipated ways, including fleeing from authorities, inappropriately approaching an officer or becoming sidetracked by courtroom sounds or the sensation of handcuffs. As a result, autistic children require different treatment, yet judges and others may not understand the characteristics of autism.

“There have been no protocols for juvenile justice professionals to identify those kids,” says Tammy Hughes, chair of the Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education at Duquesne University’s School of Education. But in Pennsylvania, a change to the judicial code now requires magistrates to complete continuing education about the signs and traits of autism.

The Justice Training Project of Pennsylvania’s Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training Collaborative, together with the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, developed an education program for criminal justice professionals, including probation officers, public defenders, magistrates and judges. Through the program, which is supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Bureau of Autism Services, 1,000 Pennsylvania magistrates are now learning to recognize autism indicators in juveniles.

More than 21,000 children with autism reside in Pennsylvania, and contact with the criminal justice system more than doubled among residents with autism between 2005 and 2011. “Our training explains autism traits and, through video, magistrates can actually see how autistic kids are likely to behave,” Hughes says.

Blaise Larotonda, a magisterial district judge in Pittsburgh, says it’s “extremely important” that judges “have all the information available to us as it relates to the issues we hear in our courtrooms. Training is always the first and most important step towards the understanding and recognition of these issues.”

Educators in the 1½ -hour training include psychiatrists, attorneys, parents of individuals with autism and teachers, who explain common characteristics of autistic individuals and effective ways to communicate with offenders who have autism. “A challenge with autistic individuals is getting information to them and out of them,” Hughes explains. “There are very specific techniques, such as asking short questions that are not open-ended.”

Competency is also an issue, Hughes adds. “If an autistic child participates in an interview or waives Miranda rights, did they understand what that meant? Individuals with autism have difficulty giving and receiving information. They’re often very good at mimicking and repeating, but if you say, ‘Tell me in your own words what I said,’ it becomes clear they may not have actually understood.”

The magistrate training program has received “an extremely positive response,” says Hughes, who adds that in juvenile justice, the priority is rehabilitation. “Nobody wants kids back in the courtroom.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Autism Awareness: Judges and others in Pennsylvania’s juvenile courts are being trained about signs and traits of the condition.”


Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.