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Pa. district judges take course on how to identify, work with autistic defendants in court

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

District Judge Tom Swan and his family live with autism every day.

So Swan has a keen sense of how the developmental disability could affect the responses he gets from people with autism — like his 19-year-old son — who come into his West Deer courtroom.

“If you read him his Miranda rights and asked him if he understood those rights, he would say yes,” said Swan, who was sworn into the post in January after serving as an Allegheny County assistant and deputy district attorney. “But if you asked him what it means, what those rights mean, he couldn't tell you.”

Swan is one of 1,000 district judges in the state who are now required to take a course on how to handle autistic defendants off all ages in their courtrooms. Continuing education laws were updated in July to help district judges better recognize indicators of the disability that affects one in 68 children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

A 2009 state census conducted by the state Health Department's Bureau of Autism Services showed that about 20,000 people with autism were receiving state services in Pennsylvania. That number grew in 2014 to 55,000 people, the majority of whom are children, an updated census shows.

That means more people with autism are coming in contact with the court system, which can be confusing for judges who are not familiar with the challenges in communication, social situations and behavior that are markers of autism and can vary greatly from person to person.

Autistic people tend to take things very literally. They may be fidgety. And their lack of eye contact could be misinterpreted as disrespect, said Heidi Buckley, vice president and director of community relations at the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.

It can be difficult enough to navigate the court system, but when autism becomes a factor, it's helpful to have an authority figure asking the right questions, she said.

“The magistrates have been extremely receptive,” said Tammy Hughes, professor and chairwoman of Duquesne University's department of counseling, psychology and special education.

Hughes is part of a statewide team funded by the state and the Autism Society, which is providing the training that involves a lecture and video.

About 30 to 40 judges participate in the monthly sessions that started in the fall and will wrap up in May, Hughes said.

“This is the most meaningful work that we have done,” Buckley said. “It's so practical, and it could be life-changing.”

‘So many levels'

District Judge Blaise Larotonda said he usually asks a specific question when a juvenile comes into his Mt. Lebanon courtroom: “Are there any issues that I should know about?”

That's usually enough to elicit information from police or family members about a disability that the judge can consider in rendering a decision, Larotonda said. He was involved in creating the training video, as were Swan and his son.

“There's so many levels of autism now,” he said.

The sessions teach district judges what to look for and what those indicators might mean, Hughes said. For example, a judge might perceive a person plugging his ears or closing his eyes as noncompliant. But for a person with autism, it could be a way to calm themselves because their senses are overloaded.

“There's ... an increased awareness of autism, but also I think they are more aware of people that come in front of them,” Hughes said. “What we see a lot of times with authority figures and kids with autism is that they won't let on that they don't understand something.”

Perception as reality

Washington Township District Judge Jason Buczak called the training eye-opening.

“I think that was very beneficial, because a lot of times your perception is your reality,” he said.

Autism can affect a person's ability to understand or respond appropriately, according to Diana Fishlock, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

“They may not understand that a law has been violated,” Fishlock said. “Their behaviors may be manifestations of common social deficits.”

The training will help district judges respond effectively and help a person with autism get the appropriate treatment, she said.

Hempfield District Judge L. Anthony Bompiani said it will be helpful to know how to ask the right questions and explain a situation to an autistic defendant.

“At least you're aware now that this could possibly be an issue,” he said.

Many of the judges who have been trained looked back on past experiences in court and wondered if they asked the right questions of those with autism, Hughes said.

On a few occasions, Larotonda has disposed of cases in which autism was a factor, but he is looking for more information during his training session in April.

“There's so many levels of autism now. Where do you start?” he said. “The world is changing; we have to change with it.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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