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Man in court for belly button fixation sparks autism debate

| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 8:42 p.m.
Graig Burrier sits in the courtroom during a hearing Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 in the Summit County Common Please Court in Akron, Ohio.
Graig Burrier sits in the courtroom during a hearing Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 in the Summit County Common Please Court in Akron, Ohio.

AKRON, Ohio — A judge must decide how to deal with a man diagnosed with autism who has repeatedly violated his probation for sexual battery by asking women to touch their bellybuttons.

Graig Burrier, 29, of Stow, pleaded guilty Wednesday to violating probation after approaching a female jogger and asking to see her bellybutton twice in July.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Mary Rowlands must decide whether to send Burrier back to state prison or to an inpatient treatment program for sex offenders in Minnesota.

Burrier's attorney, Joe Gorman, says his client is autistic and should be given treatment, not prison. Prosecutors argued that Burrier is not autistic and want him to finish the remaining two years of a suspended prison sentence.

“This was not an impulsive behavior; it was deliberate,” Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a statement on Thursday. “This is not the type of behavior someone with autism typically exhibits.”

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that can affect a person's ability to communicate. Repetitive and inappropriate touching could be a sign of the disorder, but it is difficult to say, said Angela Scarpa, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, who was not addressing Burrier's case specifically.

Burrier was charged with rape in 2011 after he told a pregnant 19-year-old that he needed to touch her bellybutton for a fraternity ritual. Authorities said he pushed her against a wall and digitally penetrated her.

As part of a plea deal, he was sentenced to five years' probation and a four-year suspended sentence, and was released from prison in 2016.

Burrier previously had been diagnosed with autism. But when Rowlands ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, psychologists said he did not “display symptoms” of the disorder, according to the evaluation obtained by The Akron Beacon Journal.

The evaluation listed five incidents between 2007 and 2010 when asked to see women's bellybuttons. In one instance, he paid an 18-year-old woman $3 to kiss her navel.

Court records show that Burrier had been charged with three previous probation violations. Less than four months after being convicted in 2012, his probation officer said Burrier was suicidal and had made no progress in treatment. He was sent to prison in August 2015 for another probation violation and was released in July 2016.

Prosecutors say Burrier already had a chance at treatment and sending him to prison would protect women from harassment. Gorman argued the treatment wasn't enough and that inpatient care is a better long-term solution.

“I can't imagine housing him in our state prison facility for two years is going to stop the problem,” Gorman said. “They've already tried that.”

Matthew Lerner, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York, said autistic people often run into challenges because of their difficulties with different social contexts.

“It's a really pressing matter,” Lerner said. “The criminal justice system is not often equipped to handle people with autism.”

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