Oakland University Conference Will Examine How Autism and the Law Intersect

Event will be May 3 in the Golf and Learning Center Building

Gavel and scale on a table

Oakland University Conference Will Examine How Autism and the Law Intersect

Oakland University’s Department of Human Development and Child Studies, in collaboration with the Oakland University Center for Autism*, will present “Guilt by Innocence: Understanding Autism in the World of the Criminal Justice System” from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3 in the Golf and Learning Center Building at 464 Golf View Lane in Rochester.

The goal of the conference is to educate professionals in the criminal justice system — attorneys, judges, parole officers, etc. — as well as other professionals in the field of education, psychology, social work, and counseling about adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In addition, the conference is for parents of children with autism who want to better understand how socially unacceptable behaviors may result in criminal conduct.

“We want judges and attorneys to make just and informed decisions about both criminal responsibility and culpability in relation to those living with an autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr. Janet Graetz, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Child Studies at OU. “We also want the greater community to understand the internal world of those with autism.”

Upon completion of this conference, attendees will be able to identify the characteristics of individuals with ASD, understand how the characteristics/ behaviors of those with ASD may result in contact with the criminal justice system, learn ways to assist and support those with ASD, consider more appropriate adjudication options for those on the autism spectrum, become aware of the impact current laws have on individuals with ASD and their families, and understand the need to examine the Sex Offender Registration Act in Michigan.

“We have procured several national speakers who will be able to help us better understand how autism intersects with the criminal justice system,” Graetz said.

Speakers Include

  • Dr. Lynda Geller, a clinical psychologist specializing in ASD and the unique challenges it presents in both individual struggle and public perception. Her presentation, entitled “The Impact of Autism on Psychosexual Development, Understanding On-Line Offenses,” will provide a framework about autism, including characteristics and behavioral issues.
  • Mark Mahoney, an attorney whose work over the last decade has focused on the defense of young men with ASD who are accused of online sexual offenses all over the U.S. His presentation is entitled “The ‘Perfect Storm’ – Social Learning Disabilities.”
  • Alan Gershel, attorney-at-law, will present “An Appropriate Use of Prosecutorial Discretion,” during which he will provide information about legal cases that involve adolescents/ adults with autism and their outcomes. Gershel served as Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan for over three decades and is currently the Grievance Administrator for the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission.
  • Larry Dubin, a professor of law, will review the need to examine the Michigan Sex Offender Registration Act during his presentation, which is entitled “Comments About the Michigan Sex Offender Registration Act.” Dubin has practiced law in Michigan and has been a law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy for over four decades teaching and publishing in the areas of legal ethics, the law of evidence and trial practice and issues faced by people on the autism spectrum who are brought into the criminal justice system.
  • Dr. Erin Comartin, whose presentation, “The Collateral Consequences of Sex Offender Registration for Individuals with Autism and their Family Members,” will address interventions and supports for vulnerable populations who find themselves in the criminal justice system. An assistant professor of social work and the data director for the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at Wayne State University, Comartin’s work predominantly focuses on individuals convicted of sex crime perpetration, and the laws that manage their re-entry into the community.

The conference will also include a presentation by two parents — Tom and Jackie — who will share the story of their adult son with autism, who was arrested and arraigned after a search warrant and raid was carried out at their home, which led to the discovery of child pornography on their son’s computer. Following a 2-year court battle, their son was convicted of importation and transportation of obscene material. He is currently serving a 36-month prison term.

Since the raid on their home, Tom has dedicated the bulk of his time to developing an effective legal defense for his son. He continues to study the latest research on autism, specifically the intersection of autism, and internet-facilitated child pornography.

“While recent studies in autism spectrum disorders have examined the identification, diagnosis, and intervention of the young child with autism, fewer studies have explored the lives of adolescents and adults,” Graetz said. “The deficits frequently seen in young children — lack of social skills, difficulties communicating, and understanding the world — continue into adulthood.

“Unfortunately, these deficits may contribute to inappropriate behaviors that result in the adolescent/adult becoming involved in the criminal justice system,” she added. “Access to justice, especially for adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder, can be problematic for the individual and a nightmare for families.”

To register for the conference, or for more information, visit Guilt by Innocence: Understanding Autism in the World of the Criminal Justice System or contact Donna Simons at dksearig@oakland.edu or at 248-370-2623.

* The Oakland University Center for Autism consists of Research, Academic Programs, and Outreach Supports. In 2018, the Outreach Supports division received a substantial gift and is now named the Joanne and Ted Lindsay Foundation Autism Outreach Services (OUCARES). The mission of the OU Center for Autism is to improve the quality of life for individuals impacted by autism.

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