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Mother speaks on law enforcement relations with autistic people

In the fourth virtual meeting to address criminal justice reform for Pennsylvanians with Autism, a Lycoming County woman and parent of a person with autism, spoke candidly about her experiences and provided suggestions for change in protocols in the courtroom and with law enforcement.

Shelly Mattie, of Montoursville, said that her son, Connor, who was

diagnosed with autism when he was three, has had two negative incidents with police officers while experiencing a “meltdown.”

“An individual with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is seven times more likely to have police interaction than their peers,” said Mattie.

“Autism is not a disability, it is a different ability,” said Justice Kevin Dougherty of the state Supreme Court. “Services and support are the answer, incarceration is not. We need to make change throughout Pennsylvania. If we change the way we look at things, the things we look at will change.”

Mattie added that having a routine is very important for children and adults on the autism spectrum as many times they are also dealing with generalized anxiety, depression and some may experience PTSD. She also spoke about the lack of resources and accessibility to resources in her county for her son’s specific needs.

Some on the spectrum are non-verbal and may “want to connect to people but don’t know how to,” said Dave Knauss, a person on the Autism spectrum from Lebanon County.

A common theme that judges, the officers and attorneys on the call spoke of was “early disclosure” and communication about their abilities as early as possible, whether they are in court or pulled over.

Individuals on the spectrum often have harder times with social situations, says Knauss. He added that surprise situations that have uncertainty like court or traffic stops are not always the best-case scenario for those on the spectrum.

He suggested creating a “standardized process to routinely ask about disabilities” rather than tailoring questions to a person that one may assume “looks or acts different” and is a question that is asked to everyone.

Jennifer Rogers, a judge for the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, added that she had started “pre-trial” to have families come in to ensure that any and all accommodations like the need for comfort items, weighted blankets, fidget toys or advocates, are made for families, adults and children who need them.

She added that she hopes to make the standardized process that Knauss suggested, present in her court from now on.

“Sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to prepare,” said Mattie. “Sometimes (kids and adults on the Autism spectrum) need more time to process demands.”

“Sometimes they (kids and adults on the Autism spectrum) can be viewed as non-compliant while they are just trying to figure it out in their mind. … Their brain is wired for fight or flight,” she said.

“They just want to do the right thing and they want the right things to be done,” Knauss said.

She added that with police officers, judges and other first responders, everyone’s “top priority is safety” but suggests that there needs to be separate protocols in place for instances when a traffic stop or a court date is in place with a person on the Autism spectrum.

“There needs to be another person to be able to advocate for that person or kid,” she said.

Leonard Namiotka, superintendent of the Scranton Police Department, said that police need to “adjust their approach” to “taking a step back” as well as “stopping and identifying…not grabbing a hold of someone right away.”

Other officers like Captain Christopher King and Lieutenant Adam Reed both of the state police, both focused on education; both of police officers educating themselves and through training, but also educating community members on “how to act” when getting pulled over by police.

Some on the call suggested that during these stops, police officers explain why they are doing what they are doing, especially when there is a person on the spectrum at this particular stop.

Reed suggested disclosing and communicating as much as possible, even if the person or child on the spectrum were to just point to something– this of course called for concern with the ongoing national police brutality incidents.

Jennifer Williams, deputy mental health administrator with the Carbon-Monroe-Pike Mental Health and Developmental Services, said that they are currently working on a project for “Autism ID cards” that will hopefully bridge the “gap” of needs during police stops and court.

Williams said that Carbon-Monroe-Pike Mental Health and Developmental Services has been working hard on crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers that include regular meetings to discuss cases as well as regular training. They also work on re-entry programs, and have a specialized forensic department that goes within the justice system to meet with individuals who are incarcerated.

“It is a spectrum disorder,” Knauss said. “If they (police) explained why, then I can understand why.”

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