Virtual forum addresses access to justice for those with autism
According to Lehigh County, District Attorney Jim Martin and members of his staff participated recently in a virtual forum, Autism and the Courts, aimed at learning about court and law enforcement experiences from individuals on the autism spectrum.
Spearheaded by Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty on behalf of the Court, the discussion in the Lehigh Valley was one of several held across the state for representatives from the judiciary, law enforcement, health care, social work and advocacy communities to learn about the challenges faced by someone with autism as they seek access to justice.
“These conversations will help ensure that all of the criminal justice system are accessible to those living with autism and their families,” Martin said. “I commend Justice Dougherty and his colleagues on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for advancing this issue throughout the commonwealth.”
In addition to Dougherty and Martin, other panelists included Lehigh County President Judge J. Brian Johnson, First Assistant District Attorney Steven M. Luksa, Lehigh County Forensic Case Manager, Corrections Treatment Counselor and MH/ID Case Manager Keri Miller (retired) and S. Drew Taylor, the director of the Lehigh County Special Program for Offenders in Rehabilitation and Education, Director of the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations Nina Wall, former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Dennis O’Brien, local attorneys Marleen Shields and David Vaida and Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Christopher King, Capt. Joanne Reed and Lt. Adam Reed.
This event was the second of five listening tours scheduled across the state to allow members of the court and law enforcement to hear firsthand about the challenges faced in other counties from providers and individuals with autism involved in the justice system.
With nearly one in 59 children diagnosed with autism, judges hearing cases in criminal, juvenile, orphans’ and family courts are likely to have individuals living with autism come before them.
Some of the considerations recommended for those individuals with autism are already in place at the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Victim/Witness Unit, which uses several specially-designed rooms and tools to create a safe and welcoming environment.
Those considerations include rooms that have a soothing neutral color; comfortable furniture, filters to dim harsh fluorescent light and items like iPads, coloring books and tactile fidget tools to help provide comfort and the ability to express feelings.
Some people with autism having difficulty socializing with others can find comfort with a therapy dog.
In 2017, Ramona, a courthouse companion dog, joined the staff in the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office.
Therapy dogs can often help those with autism mingle with others, divert attention away from distractions and help focus on a task.
The goal of the forum is to gather information used to guide the next steps in making the court system more accessible.