- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The police officers placed the green and red oven mitts over their hands and tried clumsily to use paperclips. Then they tried with big binder clips - an “accommodation” that helped them successfully complete the task despite their compromised fine motor skills.

The exercise was part of a daylong training on autism Thursday in downtown Los Angeles for 100 police officers, school police and county Sheriff’s deputies. The training is part of a growing effort by law enforcement agencies to ensure their officers are equipped to handle the diversity of people they encounter and to avoid having an incident end in tragedy.

But, “Mission Possible” takes training a step further, bringing in 100 middle- and high school-aged students who are paired with officers and deputies for three hours of activities that allow each to grow more comfortable with the other and to interact outside of a crisis scenario.

“If you have autism, and you have problems communicating or you have behavior issues, it’s not going to go very well with the police if you can’t follow their instructions or tell them who you are or what kind of help you need,” said Emily Iland, who designed the training materials. “We realized the deficits of autism and the demands of a police encounter are a mismatch.”

Training the kids also helps breaks down the mystery of police officers and their work, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. He noted that many police officers have children or other family members who are also autistic.

Lt. Stacy Spell has a teenage son with autism. He’s also president of the Los Angeles Police Autism Support Group and spoke Thursday about dealing with missing autistic people and how their instinctual behaviors - for example, running from searchers - might make it harder to find them.

“Most of us come on to protect the most vulnerable of our society,” Spell said. “People with autism, with development disabilities, they are the most vulnerable.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, which affects communication, socialization, behavior and sensory processing.

On Thursday, students danced alongside their officers to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” stopping at random moments to obey “Officer Simon Says.” This version of the game requires you to always do what the officer says. So they’d pause on command to put their hands up or behind their backs.

The program, funded by a Los Angeles Police Foundation grant, has trained 400 officers and 400 students over the last three years. The city’s fire department is looking at replicating it for firefighters, who often encounter autistic individuals during emergencies, said fire Capt. Jaime Moore, who was in the parking lot showing youths an ambulance.

Los Angeles School Police serves the nation’s second-largest district. About 83,000 of its 651,000 students have special needs, and 13,000 of those have autism. They’re considering making a daylong special needs training program a requirement for officers coming out of the academy starting next summer, school police Chief Steve Zipperman said.

Kids with special needs are seven times more likely to have a law enforcement encounter because they’re bullied, more likely to be lost, or are with a person who can’t handle their condition, said Luann Pannell, director of LAPD training and education, who helped plan Thursday’s event with the Autism Society of Los Angeles.

Training reduces the propensity of officers to use force and also promotes mutual understanding, Zipperman said.

“A lot of us recognize things in the past occurred where if we’d had a better understanding of special needs (situations) might have resolved differently,” Zipperman said.

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Tami Abdollah can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/latams

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