Pa. court officials discuss reform for people with autism

Written by on February 24, 2021

 Pa. court officials discuss reform for people with autism

By Tyler Pratt

February 24, 2021

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Courts across Pennsylvania are considering how to adapt the justice system for people with autism. Court officials in the Lehigh Valley on Feb. 23 discussed different ways people on the spectrum experience judicial proceedings. 

Listen to the story.

Ardhika Aziz has autism. He says going to court can be overwhelming. People with the disorder are sometimes overloaded with sights and sounds.

“The environment is very loud, there are a lot of people, and sometimes someone’s voice can echo throughout the courtroom and that can be a little much to process for someone on the spectrum,” Aziz says. 

Some people with autism may fidget or avoid eye contact, he says, that’s something Lehigh County President Judge Brian Johnson says he’s seen firsthand.

“Where I had somebody in front of me and I didn’t realize that they might have been autistic and they were behaving in ways that were not what we normally expected from somebody in court,” Johnson says.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty says he didn’t understand autism until recently.

“I always viewed myself as somewhat of a progressive and forward-thinking judge. But guess what, that was a shock and a punch to my face. Because what I realized was I know that I don’t know,” Dougherty says.

Dougherty is holding a series of forums with court officials, lawyers, and advocates. And it’s not just about recognizing autism. It’s also about finding ways to accommodate people within the judicial process. 

Ardhika Aziz says something as simple as having fewer people in court or changing the seating arrangement could help.

“If there is a certain place in the courtroom that somebody on the spectrum feels best to sit at we would like to accommodate them,” Aziz says.

More conversations are planned around the state throughout this year with the goal of helping courts improve how they serve people with autism going forward.

Advocates suggest people with autism tell their lawyers about special needs before they go to court so the judges are in the loop.

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