Officers + autism community = awareness

11 Feb

Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy Mike Ottley and his K9 companion Peak.

An adorable and oh, so droopy and cuddly bloodhound puppy recently paid a visit to the Jujitsu Buddies class at Strike Back Martial Arts in the Village of Webster.

Accompanied by his handler, Deputy Mike Ottley of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the four-month old bundle of floppy skin and monstrous paws happily played with a crocheted dragon and endured much petting while Ottley chatted with the students about his role as a deputy.


Sheriff’s Office SCUBA Commander Lt. Chris Fay helps Colton Sprague into a SCUBA suit at a recent No Gi Jujitsu class. 

It was a fun event for the students in class that day, but it had a serious purpose. It was one of a series of visits by law enforcement officers organized by Strike Back Martial Arts owners Dave Nicchitta and Mike Palmer.

Over the past several weeks, Nicchitta and Palmer have invited local law enforcement officers to visit the studio’s jujitsu classes for special needs children and adults. Officers visited three of the studio’s classes: Strike Back Fitness for kids and teens with Down syndrome, No Gi Jujitsu for teenagers with autism, and most recently, Jujitsu Buddies for younger children with autism.

The goal of the visits has been to give both students — especially those with autism — and officers a chance to ask questions get to know each other a little better.

“Autism is one of the fastest growing disabilities in America,” said Nicchitta, who is himself a Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy. “The way it presents itself can be misinterpreted as inappropriate or criminal behavior.”

“Data tells us that one in five teens with autism will be stopped and questioned by police before age 21, and people with disabilities, including autism, are five times more likely to be jailed than those without disabilities.”

Those with autism in particular often have a hard time looking people in the eyes or following multi-step directions. They can also become extremely agitated in the presence of flashing lights, sirens and loud radios, and may not like being touched. In a high-pressure situation, an officer might misinterpret such behaviors as combative or non-compliant.

Nicchitta hopes that through programs like these, and through additional opportunities he’s offering to the Rochester-area law enforcement community, he can help raise awareness.

“When an officer encounters someone who is acting unusually, we hope we can get the officer to just take a moment and think, is there something else going on here?”

The class visits are as beneficial for the students as they are for the officers.

“I wanted to create a non-stressful environment where our students can interact with law enforcement in a positive way,” Nicchitta said. “That way the students can keep that experience in the back of their heads if a situation occurs where they have to interact with officers.”

Strike Back Martial Arts is located at 55 East Main St. in the Village of Webster. The studio offers offers adaptive jujitsu classes designed for children and adults with autism, Down syndrome and other physical and emotional disabilities, as well as non-adaptive jujitsu classes.


Students in Strike Back Martial Arts’ Jujitsu Buddies class listen — and watch Peak — as Deputy Ottley talks about his job.  

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