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'Life-Changing' Program Gives People With Autism a Fair Shot in Court

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District Judge Tom Swan, of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, is one of approximately 1,000 district judges in the state now required to take a course in helping defendants with special needs in their courtrooms. Swan has a 19-year-old son with autism, and he explained to the Pittsburgh Tribune‑Review why it’s so important to help professionals in law enforcement and the judiciary system understand the behavior and thought processing of all people.

“If you read [my son] his Miranda rights and asked him if he understood those rights, he would say yes,” Swan said. “But if you asked him what it means, what those rights mean, he couldn’t tell you.”

The Pennsylvania Judicial Code requires every magisterial district judge to complete a 32-hour continuing education program each year, and thanks to an amendment passed in July, the program now includes courses in “identification and availability of diversionary options” for individuals with mental illness, intellectual disabilities or autism, reported the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.

District judge Tom Swan and his autistic 19-year-old son, Kevin, inside the courtroom of his West Deer magistrate's office on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
District Judge Tom Swan and his son, Kevin, who has autism. (Photo courtesy of Eric Felack /

The Autism Society of Pittsburgh teamed up with Duquesne University’s department of counseling, psychology and special education to provide training, which involves a lecture and video.

Dan Torisky, president of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh (and former president of the Autism Society of America), told The Mighty that to his knowledge, this program is the first of its kind in the United States. He explained that it began as a police officer training program, and then moved to cover the entire justice system in the state.

Tammy Hughes, professor and chairwoman of Duquesne University’s department of counseling, psychology and special education, explained to the Pittsburgh Tribune‑Review how such training may help a judge recognize that someone who might be perceived as “noncompliant” for plugging his ears or closing his eyes may actually be experiencing sensory overload.

When asked about their expansion, Torisky told The Mighty, “We are currently preparing courses for defense attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, higher level judges, and, ultimately, an alternative sentencing judges’ desk book.”

This is the most meaningful work that we have done,” Heidi Buckley, vice president and director of community relations at the Autism Society of Pittsburgh told the Pittsburgh Tribune‑Review. “It’s so practical, and it could be life-changing.”

Originally published: March 4, 2016
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