Justice for All: Training in autism designed to improve state’s Juvenile System

A Duquesne University professor of school psychology has an exceptional teaching load—and exceptional students—this year.

Dr. Tammy Hughes, professor and chair of Duquesne’s Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education, is training 1,000 magisterial judges in 2015-2016, meeting the recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Judicial Code that add autism training to mandated continuing education.

As the rate of autism soars, so does the number of individuals with autism who have contact with police. Among young people, interactions between youth with autism and the juvenile justice system have more than doubled between 2005 and 2011.

The number of Pennsylvania residents who receive services because of autism nearly tripled between 2005 and 2011. Nearly half of these residents were between 5 and 12 years old; nearly one-quarter were ages 13-17, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s (DPW) Pennsylvania Autism Census Update 2014.

While autism is individualistic, the DPW noted that social interactions, communications and behavioral development are common challenges, often leading to charges related to physical contact and property offenses among others.

“In terms of committing illegal acts, the intent of somebody with autism is very different from the intent of somebody without autism,” said Hughes. With Duquesne alumnus attorney Jesse Torisky, she is conducting training of justice system workers through the Justice Training Project of ASERT, the state’s Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training Collaborative, helping juvenile justice workers to learn such distinctions.

Their work, in collaboration with Western Region ASERT collaborative and the Autism Society of America—Pittsburgh Chapter, continuing through the summer, is supported by a $10,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and Bureau of Autism Services.

A video included in the training shows interactions of kids with autism, demonstrating what they understand, the symptoms of autism and how best to keep the community safe.

“The idea is with improved knowledge, people can make better decisions—and get children to the right place for treatment,” Hughes said. “Nobody wants kids to end up in court.”

Yet, she noted, “Having a disability doesn’t keep you from being charged with a crime. The system must move forward so there are options.”

Duquesne University: Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic research universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability.