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Autistic Youths in Juvenile Detention Facilities: On the Rise, but Often Preventable

Two Duquesne University researchers presented groundbreaking work on autism in juvenile detention facilities at the American Psychological Association’s recent annual meeting.

Few individuals with autism are in the juvenile justice system, but these numbers are growing as autism increases in the general population, according to the research of Dr. Tammy Hughes, associate professor in the school psychology program in the School of Education at Duquesne, and Dr. Lawrence Sutton, a research associate in the school psychology program as well. They found that individuals with autism, a developmental disorder that impacts auditory processing, language and social interaction, also may have delayed sexual development, which may contribute to delinquent acts.

However, Hughes and Sutton have established that many situations bringing autistic youths ages 14-20 into the juvenile justice system are preventable.

“The main theme is we’re trying to inform people that treatment is available,” said Hughes, who has encouraged exchanges among the families of autistic children, educators and justice personnel. “Just as students with autism require adjustments to teaching strategies in school, so too do they require adjustments to intervention strategies that are impacted by the disorder.”

Because some autistic youths have high IQs, they may be expected to react normally to body language and sarcasm, figures of speech and other language—the very areas impacted by their disorder.

“Some people say, ‘They should know better,’ and that’s just wrong,” Sutton said.

Effective treatment entails teaching autistic youth to react in socially accepted ways, then practicing this new reaction in supervised, real-life circumstances. When autistic youths are excited, Sutton explained, they fall back to the last way a task was performed, so the follow-up practice is a critical step that until now, often was bypassed.

Proactive steps also are needed to safely handle issues related to sexual development and sexual education in autistic youths so they will neither become victims nor victimizers, Hughes said.

“Some children with autism are taken advantage of by teasing or bullying in this way because they are different, and they don’t know to run, to tell on other people or that they should not repeat what has been done to them,” Hughes said.

Overall, the research is intended to impact policies, Hughes said. She and Sutton noted that on July 1, Pennsylvania became the first state with entitlement services for adults, independent of their IQs. These services are expected to foster independence by developing social and life skills that would allow autistic youths to eventually live in group settings or on their own and to obtain jobs.

“Their quality of life will be enhanced, not just by making it safer, but by allowing them to contribute to and enjoy life as best they can,” Sutton said. “Many of them have wonderful gifts, and that’s why it’s important that education is a partner.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.