Charleston police officers met with special needs residents and their advocates at Brittlebank Park on Saturday morning to "create exceptional partnerships," part of a recent effort to serve the city's special needs community better.

The Charleston Police Department has broadened department-wide training concerning developmental disabilities, according to Lt. Peter Farrell, which is a part of a larger effort to better serve those with special needs.

The police department also unveiled a voluntary questionnaire Saturday which caregivers for people with special needs can fill out at any time and give to the department. The questionnaire allows caregivers to give more details about their relative or dependent's specific needs and disabilities. Some autistic people, for example, may be non-verbal and need to be communicated with differently.

"We're trying to figure out how to work with them and best serve them while maintaining the safety of our officers," Farrell said.

This kind of questionnaire can be especially helpful for autistic people, as autism spectrum disorders have a wide range of characteristics and there is no "one size fits all" approach when dealing with an autistic person in an emergency situation, according to Caitlin Evensen, a line therapist for the Early Autism Project.

"The spectrum is so large, it's a case-by-case basis every time," Evensen said. "The best thing to do is to work up a plan with your therapist for those situations."

The Saturday meet-and-greet allowed for special needs residents to meet officers, and to "give officers a face to put on an illness" or disability, said Joann Monin-Debevec, president of the Charleston Area chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"This gives them the opportunity to see we're not all the scary lights," Officer Rebecca Hadfield said. "They can touch and see and come up to us in a calm environment."

Those who work with the special needs community, like Evensen, said Saturday's event was a good start to what they hope to be an ongoing dialogue with the Charleston Police Department.

"It's definitely not hurtful," Evensen said. "The more they do it, the more effective it will be."

Reach Amanda Coyne at 937-5592 or on Twitter at @AmandaCCoyne