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A discussion on challenges people with autism face in court

The virtual roundtable on Tuesday night is the first of many, said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Department of Human Services held a first of its kind roundtable discussion on the challenges facing people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Morgan Bathgate, a freshman at Messiah University in, has autism and she’ll be the first to tell you that being different is not a weakness.

“We’re not less. We’re just as equivalent as you are in the things that you do,” Bathgate said. “We think differently, but we don’t want to live differently.”

Bathgate has never been involved in the criminal justice system, but she can advocate for other individuals with autism about the struggles they may encounter in the courtroom. 

Bathgate joined a panel made up of members in the Pennsylvania court system, to educate judges and attorneys on the challenges people with autism face. Those challenges include difficulty with eye contact, loud noises and touch.

“For example, if somebody is going inside of a court and they have handcuffs on, if they’re complaining about the way it feels on their wrists, it’s not us just complaining. It’s because it is genuinely making us anxious,” Bathgate explained.

The virtual roundtable on Tuesday night is the first of many, said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty. The conversation is meant to give guidance and education to judges managing cases involving people with autism. There will be five regional virtual roundtable discussions on addressing autism in the courtroom beginning January 2021.

Justice Dougherty said it is easy to misjudge social cues and he is hoping to raise awareness about the accommodations people with autism might need in the courtroom.

“We have to have a smarter sense of justice. We’re going through a period of criminal reformation. Why not go through a period of Pennsylvania reformation as to all things judiciary and I believe it’s necessary when you realize the number of individuals that are diagnosed with this disorder is astounding” Justice Dougherty said. “Imagine the number not diagnosed.”

Bathgate is majoring in Psychology and has big dreams of using her degree for the greater good—not because of the daily challenges she has faced, but because of the struggles she has overcome.

“I just have the desire to help people. It’s just been with me since I was a kid,” said Bathgate. “I’ve been through a lot of rough things myself and it pains me to watch other people suffering through the same things.”

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