In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between criminal justice system and autistic people.
The incident that landed an autistic teen in the criminal justice system took place on July 14, when Paul Gordo pushed a woman to the ground while experiencing what his father said was a panic attack.
But for Steve Gordo, the father of the severely disabled 18-year-old, the problem started much earlier, when the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District stopped providing his son with the special education he needed.
And when the district arranged for a teacher, the setting chosen to provide instruction — a public library — led to the behavior that resulted in the incident, Steve Gordo believes.Ken Carlson reports at The Modesto Bee:
The Gordo family waited for two months before Paul was charged with felony assault with an enhancement for causing great bodily harm.
They had hoped that Superior Court Judge Pamela Butler would reduce the charges at the preliminary hearing this month, but the felony remained in place and a misdemeanor was added for a person pushed inside the library. At the close of the hearing last week, Paul was ordered to stand trial.
Steve Gordo said it’s clear the woman should be made whole and his insurer has tried to contact her family.
He said his son panicked in the library and was running to take refuge in their car. Because of his inability to make decisions and care for himself, a court appointed the parents as conservators for Paul last April.
“When Paul has a meltdown, its fight or flight. He’s not thinking clearly,” Steve Gordo said. “There is documentation in his school file that says this behavior is related to his disability.”
More than 10,000 people have signed an online petition in support of the defendant. [Jill] Escher of the Bay Area autism society urged the district attorney in a December letter to drop the criminal prosecution.From The Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area:
Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area
PO Box 249
San Mateo, CA 94401
Dean D. Flippo
Monterey County District Attorney
230 Church St # 3
Salinas, CA 93901
December 5, 2015
Re: Request to Drop Charges in State v. Gordo, Case No. SS151439A
Dear Mr. Flippo:
We are writing to express our astonishment and grave concerns over your election to instigate a felony charge against a young man with autism named Paul Gordo. Based on the publicly available facts, it is undisputable that this mentally disabled manʼs impulsive actions were features of his very significant neurodevelopmental impairment, and not a product of intent to harm as required by law.
Autism is a pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder that results in serious functional, social cognitive, sensory, behavioral and intellectual limitations. In Paulʼs case, these pathologies are clear and significant enough to warrant eligibility in the stateʼs Developmental Disability Services system, and for a court to find him so profoundly incapable of self-care and independent decision-making that he requires a conservatorship.
Paulʼs extensive disabilty in fact places him among the small subset of autistic students who require residential treatment placement. California, however, offers no such placements past the age of 18. High-support-needs young adults like Paul who require these nonexistent residential treatment placements are often provided inadequate services in the community, essentially set up to fail.
Moreover, Paul did not elect to be at the library where the events occurred. He did not elect to delay treatment for his behavioral issues. He did not choose a “victim.” He did not seek to cause harm. He was placed at the library by adults charged with making such decisions, and treatment options were in the hands of others. Charging this young man is akin to blaming someone for unknowingly spreading an infection when no adequate treatment was available.
Autistic people like Paul lack the ability to accurately perceive the world around them, comprehend social norms, or maintain executive functioning we take for granted every minute of our day. Outbursts often result from anxieties or sensory dysfunction hitting a brain that simply cannot process the complex mix of exogenous factors or figure out how to remedy a problem in the moment. Panic, flight, aggression and maladaptive behaviors, although not planned or desired, may be the result.
Severe autism cases in California have skyrocketed over the past three decades, from about 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 80,000 today. (Source: Department of Developmental Services). The population of young adults such as Paul with DDS- eligible autism will double in the next five years and triple over the next ten. Research is slowly revealing that this surge is likely due in part to “de novo,” or new, mutations from parental gametes, resulting in dysregulation of early brain development.
Criminalizing autism behavior as a felony would not only put this young man on the road to three strikes/life in prison but put others across the state in similar jeopardy. The remedy to protect the public from impulsive autism acts such as Paulʼs is adherence to the Lanterman Act (Welf. & Inst Code Sec. 4500 et seq.) and the federal IDEA, through which those with developmental disability are entitled to a system of services and supports to enable them to live and learn safely and as appropriate to their needs.
Here, the system clearly failed Paul, and now he is supposed to pay the price? We urge you to immediately desist from this perversion of the intent of our criminal laws, not to mention any sense of common justice. The DA is not representing The People in this case.
It also seems imperative that the DAʼs office receive training about autism, and if we could be of assistance in that regard, we would, with gratitude, be at your disposal.
Very truly yours,
Jill Escher President
CC: Thomas McMahon, attorney at law