partnership among the university, the county Juvenile Court
and community members, including police and judges. The
students continue to partner with the young offenders, and
the rest of the team works together to help the young people
achieve positive goals and steer clear of crime.
The program has strong research backing. A 2006 article
by Marisa L. Sturza and Davidson in the Journal of Prevention
& Intervention in the Community reports that for youth in the
program, overall crime rates over a 30-month follow-up were
consistently half of those randomly assigned to no treatment or
to treatment-as-usual control conditions. And the program costs
about a fifth as much as usual court processing, Davidson says.
Undergraduate students also benefit from participating
in the program, finds a 2010 study in the American Journal of
Community Psychology. Compared with matched peers, they’re
more likely to go on to graduate school, choose human service
careers, see themselves positively and have better attitudes toward
youth. “It’s a very positive educational tool,” Davidson says.
A family-centered approach
Psychologist Stephen Gavazzi, PhD, a family therapist and
professor at The Ohio State University, has developed a
diversion program that addresses what he perceives as
key limitations in many such programs: a lack of family
involvement in treatment and an over-emphasis on problem
behaviors. He’s developed versions of the program tailored
to status offenders, young people who have committed
misdemeanors or lower-level felony offenses, and higher-level
Drawing from a primary prevention program he developed
A tailored approach for autistic youth?
High-functioning teens with autism may be
difficult to spot because they don’t display typical
behaviors, such as rocking and hand waving, and
their language skills may be adequate. Because the
features of autism are less obvious among these
youth, a disproportionate number land in juvenile
detention for behaviors such as obsessive following
or touching others, says school psychologist tammy
L. Hughes, PhD, who chairs Duquesne University’s
department of counseling, psychology and special
But the nature of their developmental disorder
makes it imperative that they be treated in a way
that recognizes their unique issues, preferably
through well-designed diversion programs, she
“not many young people with autism commit
crimes, but of that small group, their needs are
distinct,” she says.
the issue came to Hughes’s attention
when her colleague Lawrence Sutton, PhD, a
clinical psychologist who works for the state of
Pennsylvania, observed that 43 percent of the young
people in a juvenile sex-offense unit met criteria for
autism. After taking a closer look, the psychologists
also found that these young people weren’t
improving under traditional treatment approaches
for sexual offenses. For example, the standard
treatment for juvenile sex offenders places a strong
emphasis on learning to empathize with the victim’s
point of view, as well as on putting young people
into group formats that aid their socialization.
“But kids with autism have a lot of difficulty
understanding another’s perspective,” Hughes says.
Many also find traditional group therapy confusing
and therefore ineffective.
their motives are also different from those of
typical sex-offending youth, says Hughes. For
instance, they may come up to someone and smell
and touch their shiny hair because of sensory-stimulation needs combined with poor social skills,
“not because they’re lying in wait to commit an
assault,” she says.
Several efforts are under way to address the
courts’ and public’s lack of knowledge on this issue.
Hughes and Sutton are working to set up screening
and treatment mechanisms for youth who are
already in detention. they have also developed a
diagnostic protocol to help courts determine the
treatment needs of high-functioning children with
autism, as well as prevention and intervention
programs to help these young people understand
sexual development, peer relationships and
dating. In addition, Hughes and others are training
juvenile justice workers to appropriately assess and
intervene with autistic youth.
“We’d like to have a system in place where we
can catch problems in these young people early on
and solve them,” Hughes says, “and if we have to
go before a judge, the judge is already informed
about their needs.”