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West Orange Times & Observer Saturday, Sep. 10, 2016 6 years ago

Ocoee police receive training to handle autistic kids, teens

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Officers with the Ocoee Police Department recently completed a two-day course to help them assist people with autism.
by: Gabby Baquero News Editor

Given the possibility of dealing with delicate situations involving juveniles with autism, Ocoee police officers held a two-day training course Aug. 11 and 12 to learn about autism. 

Autism is a general term for a number of disorders characterized by difficulty with communication and social interaction, as well as obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children is identified with autism every year.

These numbers, along with the highly publicized incident that occurred in Miami in mid-July in which police shot a caregiver of an autistic adult, makes OPD’s increased focus on preparing officers to handle such situations even more important.

The course was the idea of Stephanie Cooper, an Ocoee resident and former deputy sheriff of the New Orleans Police Department. The course taught officers how to identify individuals with autism, how to speak to them and where they might go if they are missing. 

The department also is building a database that lists individuals with autism in the Ocoee area.

“The database will help us out a lot going forward,” said officer Scott Jacoby. “It will show us what the person looks like, where they headed last time if they did get lost or other encounters with the police. … We can identify if (they have autism) — that’s the most important thing — where they are in the spectrum and what will calm them down.”

Stephanie Cooper and her son have made 100 sensory kits to help Ocoee cops handle emergency situations involving autistic kids and teens.

Cooper’s 8-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at 2, which she said gives her unique insight into how valuable such education is for police officers. 

“As a mother with a child who has autism, my biggest fear is my child wandering away and not knowing how to ask for help,” Cooper said. “My goal is to make sure all law-enforcement agencies have up-to-date training on autism. … One in 68 children will be diagnosed this year, so the chances of (them) encountering the police and the police having the tools to handle the situation is vital.”

Cooper is currently in the process of creating her own nonprofit, ALERT Autism, which will provide training for law-enforcement agencies. With the help of her son, she also is constructing 100 autism kits for Ocoee police officers to keep in their cars. The kits will carry items such as chew sticks and squish pads that could help officers calm juveniles. 

To accomplish this, Cooper has been purchasing the items herself — at a cost of about $25 per kit. She will be delivering the kits to OPD Friday, Sept. 9.

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Contact Gabby Baquero at  [email protected].

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