[Autism dad Tom] 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.
“The magistrates have been extremely receptive,” said Tammy Hughes, professor and chairwoman of Duquesne University's department of counseling, psychology and special education.From the Autism Society of Pittsburgh:
Section 3118 (A) of Title 42 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Code has always required that every magisterial district judge must complete a continuing education program each year of 32 hours in relevant instruction approved by Pennsylvania’s Continuing Legal Education Board.
And now — climaxing a 20 year effort — State Representative Tom Caltagirone’s amendment to Title 42 passed virtually unanimously by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly on July 10, 2015, mandates that continuing education include courses for District Judges in” identification and availability” of diversionary options for individuals with mental illness, intellectual disability or autism. The amendment also requires training for police officers with respect to recognition, interactive techniques and instruction of services available to such individuals.
Said Representative Caltagirone, “This action was inspired by increasing tragedies and misunderstandings involving these disabilities. Those in law enforcement and the judiciary need to know what to look for and how to accommodate those with these disabilities when they are caught up in the justice system.”
Training for juvenile justice professionals, lawyers and judges is already underway, being funded in part by the Western Region ASERT collaborative, including Duquesne University’s Department of Psychology and Special Education, and the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.Back in July, Joe Smydo reported at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"I do believe it’s time,” said Aspinwall police Officer Scott Bailey, who has two sons with autism, and worked with the Allegheny County district attorney’s office to develop a video, "Encountering People With Autism," for police and other first responders. He said the video has been sent throughout the United States and overseas.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola, an advocate of mental health training for police and diversionary programs to keep the mentally ill out of jail whenever possible, also applauded the new law. He and Officer Bailey noted that the Legislature is considering other bills, introduced by former police officers, that would allow an autism diagnosis to be noted on a person’s driver’s license or state identification card.