Felony assault charges against Paul Gordo, a California 18-year-old with autism, were reduced to a misdemeanor this week in a case watched by disability advocates.

The plea deal in Monterey Superior Court places Gordo on probation while he receives behavioral therapy at an out-of-state facility and promises restitution to pay for the victim’s medical expenses.

Steve and Susan Gordo are relieved their son won’t be tried on the felony charge, which included a “strike” enhancement for causing great bodily harm to a woman outside a library near Monterey, Calif. last July.

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“We are still angry with the system,” Steve Gordo said. “One thing we are not happy about is that Paul was exhibiting the behavior of his disability and really was not under control at that time. We are glad we don’t have to sell our house to pay for a criminal trial.”

The parents maintain that Paul experienced a meltdown common among people with autism, when he bolted from the Marina library and pushed a woman who was outside the building. The woman, who has Huntington’s disease, was knocked to the pavement and suffered a concussion.

Gordo’s case was followed by autism groups and people from around the globe. About 13,000 signed an online protest petition, which said the charges brought by the Monterey County district attorney criminalize autism.

“It is ridiculous, but I am not surprised this happened,” said Shirley Nutt of Ripon, a former director of the Ripon, Calif. advocacy group Special Needs Advocates for Understanding. “I think it will happen more and more. If you are going to charge an adult with autism for manifestations of their behavior, then I guess you will charge a blind person with jaywalking if they step outside of a crosswalk.”

Jeannine Pacioni, deputy district attorney for Monterey County, said the victim’s family did not want to go through a trial and were amenable to a reduced plea because it included restitution.

Pacioni said the injuries to the 58-year-old woman worsened her complications of Huntington’s disease. “Given the fact Mr. Gordo is getting treatment, we felt it was the way to handle the situation. … He is being allowed to go to (a) program out of state that deals with these type of behaviors,” she said.

Gordo said his son could leave as early as this week for a residential treatment center in Kansas that specializes in behavioral therapy for adults with autism who can become aggressive.

Monterey County’s probation department will have the authority to check on Gordo’s attendance and make sure he completes the program. Gordo will be subject to probation checks after he returns home from the program.

The parents maintain that Gordo was not properly managed by the school district there. The district was responsible for providing him education services for four years after completing high school.

The Kansas program will help him deal with situations that have made him aggressive. As an example, a fire alarm at high school triggered a 2014 incident in which he threatened, pushed and hit people, his father said.

Gordo was at the busy library in July for language and math instruction with a school district teacher, a setting that’s capable of triggering an outburst, his father said. Steve Gordo believes his son went into a panic when the teacher told him to be quiet. Paul ran outside to take refuge in their car and the woman was in his path, Steve Gordo said.

Nutt said parents of children with autism usually receive inadequate services from school districts and the state’s regional centers for those with developmental disabilities. When those children become adults, the parents find there are few residential treatment programs for those with aggressive tendencies.

“It is very difficult to find a quality one,” Nutt said.

Steve Gordo, a retired special education teacher, said he wasn’t prepared to deal with the criminal court system. A major help for the defense was a letter from a forensic psychologist stating that Paul’s outburst at the library was caused by his neurological disorder and his actions were not driven by criminal intent.

“I would make sure you are getting the best defense for someone with autism, not just a defense attorney that tries to challenge the evidence,” Gordo said, in a piece of advice for other parents who deal with the courts. “A big part of what Paul’s case had to do with was intent, and a forensic psychologist who showed he was not intending to harm the woman.”

© 2016 The Modesto Bee
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