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Educating judges and court officers in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

July 1, 2020

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently announced a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Developmental Programs (ODP), Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training (ASERT), and the Philadelphia Autism Project, to launch a statewide initiative focused on helping judges better understand and communicate to individuals with ASD. The partnership works to provide court officers with the skills, tools, and resources to manage cases involving an individual with autism. Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty said, “education and awareness are the cornerstones of this initiative and are a key component in ensuring the courts and our communities are accessible to all users and their families.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. The US National Institute of Mental Health defines autism as a developmental disorder affecting communication and behavior. The Autism Society states individuals with ASD may interact with criminal justice and judicial professionals in a manner that could be misinterpreted as deliberate, disrespectful, or hostile. Actions may include an inability to acknowledge one’s rights; not responding to verbal direction, repeating directions, communicating only with sign language, pictures, gestures, and avoiding eye contact.

Autism Speaks “is dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the life span, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.” The Autism Speaks webpage on the Judicial System provides information useful for judges and court officers to communicate across the autism spectrum.  Court officers must have a basic understanding of ASD to provide fair and appropriate accommodations to those with ASD and their families.

What has your court done for people with ASD? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, and share your experiences!

For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.