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Autism: 'A Seizure Is Not Assault'

NEW YORK-- When first responders and police without training in autism encounter someone with the neurological disorder, the call could end in tragedy, a six-member panel of autism experts and advocates said yesterday.

The panel -- most of whom have children with the disorder -- provided special training to about 40 members of private security firms, and ambulance and fire crews at Nassau police headquarters in Mineola.

To help protect autistic people from harm, the session, called Autism and the First Responders, provided clues on how to identify signs of the disorder and guidelines on proper responses.

For someone unfamiliar with autistic behavior, some actions might be perceived as threatening or violent when in fact they re a result of the disorder, the panel said.

Autism is a condition that sometimes looks like a crime, said panelist James Mulvaney, a former Newsday reporter whose son, Dan, 20, has the disorder. But a seizure is not an assault.

Autism diagnoses have skyrocketed nationwide in recent years, creating a stronger need for training among responders, said Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, based in Nixa, Mo.

Shreffler said more communities across the country are starting to provide similar training.

In Mineola, Roosevelt Field mall security director Tony Robertson said the training will be extremely useful for his staff. I want to try and learn as much as possible, he said.

As part of the training, attendees were told to look for telltale signs of autism such as flailing about, distant stares, rocking or speech with repetitive phrases.

They also were told that autistic children and adults might ignore verbal or visual commands. You just want to step back and see what you have, said Nassau police officer Michael Capobianco, a panelist whose son, Matthew, 8, has autism. Don t be the guy running over to save the world.

Capobianco s wife, Darlene, who is also a Nassau officer and panelist, stressed the importance of taking time to assess the situation.

The biggest problem is children with special needs can get hurt, she said. It not an assault - it s an autistic child.

Nassau s Security/Police Information Network, or SPIN, which works with the private sector to increase public safety, arranged the session. Other panelists included Mary Tatem, head of special education in the Long Beach school district, and Christopher Petrosino, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Autism Society.

At the end of the session, attendees were given informative paperwork.

Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), who also attended, said the information will be distributed to emergency medical personnel, firefighters and police officers by the state Department of Health.

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