City called on to post ‘Autistic Child’ signs

Autistic children tend to dart, run off unexpectedly

ARMATAGE – On a perfect spring day about one year ago, Luisa Watson brushed too close for comfort with her worst fear.

As the training bicycle and its rider, one of her sons, wobbled down the sidewalk from their home on Xerxes Avenue, Watson jogged alongside to help balance and catch.

Then, a commotion.

“Get him! Get him!” Watson remembers her husband shouting.

Their youngest son Joshua, a then-5-year-old boy who was born with autism, had darted out the front door and started sprinting.

Other siblings sprang out the door in pursuit, past their father, who was recovering from knee surgery and on crutches. Watson let go of the bike and gave chase, too.

A sister eventually scooped up Joshua, but not before he gave the family a serious scare, running just a few feet from busy traffic.

“It took a long time for our heart rates to go down,” Watson said.

It’s a story with which other parents of children with autism can relate. “They just bolt,” Watson said.

With Joshua older and more mobile, and with scheduled construction on Highway 62 potentially sending more traffic onto Xerxes Avenue, Watson is asking the city for help alerting drivers to slow down.

The mother said she’d like the city to place a warning sign in her yard that would notify drivers about her son’s autism, which can cause sometimes unpredictable behavior and movements.

The Public Works Department is considering Watson’s request, but the verdict isn’t in yet, said Steve Mosing, a traffic operations engineer. While the city uses “Deaf Child” signs, there isn’t an example of it installing a sign to alert drivers about a child with autism.

Other cities do offer “Autistic Child” signs. Rochester recently streamlined the process for families there to get an “Autistic Child” sign in their yard. A national consensus doesn’t exist, though. A manual that sets standards for traffic signs usage says warning signs like this should be used sparingly.

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction; communication problems; and unusual, repetitive or severely limited interests.

Another trait of children with autism, parents learn, is they have a tendency to run after something that catches their attention.

“They just focus, and that’s what they want,” Watson said.

The first time Joshua ran away in public was in the busy parking lot of a Cub Foods grocery store. The instant she got him out of the car he took off through the lot.

“I left my keys in the door. I left my purse on the floor. I left everything and just darted after him,” Watson said.

Joshua ran straight for a cart corral in the middle of the lot and hopped into a car-shaped child seat on the front of a shopping cart. When Watson reached him, he was sitting there smiling, oblivious that any driver backing out of a space wouldn’t have seen him racing past their bumper.

It’s gotten worse as Joshua’s grown older, Watson said. While he still has the cognitive ability of a 2- or 3-year-old, he has the agility of a normal 6-year-old. The family received a grant to fence in their yard and install door locks and alarms, but it doesn’t resolve their worries for Joshua’s safety.

Watson imagines what might happen if something across the street caught her son’s attention. Children with autism don’t react to noise the same as others, Watson said. A honking horn may even draw them closer, she said.

“You can never really assess what is going to be their reaction to danger,” Watson said.

Also unpredictable is the way people drive on this busy stretch of Xerxes Avenue, just a few blocks north of Highway 62. Watson said speeding is the norm and, with a little observation, it’s not a difficult claim to accept.

One day while driving in a suburb south of Minneapolis, Watson said she spotted a sign that read “Handicapped Child” sign. When she called the city of Minneapolis about getting something similar in her yard, she was told that “Deaf Child” is the closest such sign here.

Mosing, of the city’s traffic and parking services division, said he’s contacting traffic consultants, the state’s disability council and his peers in other cities’ traffic departments for advice on what the city should do.

From a traffic engineer’s perspective, the issue sits on a slippery slope. Warning signs are meant to call drivers’ attention to unexpected conditions, but there’s a theory that the excessive use of warning signs tend to breed disrespect for all signs, Mosing said.

“They just become so used to seeing them that they really start disregarding them,” he said.

The city already has about 150,000 traffic signs, and so before the city adds more, it needs to make sure they are going to be effective, Mosing said.

“We’ve got to make sure the sign itself gives a message to the driver how to maneuver through the roadway,” he said. “If a driver sees a sign that says autistic child, are they going to know how to react?”

Another question he’s looking into: will granting an “Autistic Child” sign lead to demand for other types of specialized signs?

“I would have concerns with that,” he said.

Mosing said he couldn’t say when the city would reach a decision and that, because it appears to be a new issue for the city, the investigation will need to be thorough.

Watson’s request for a sign has already won informal support from the city’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities. Chairwoman Margot Imdieke Cross said the city should consider the signs on a case-by-case basis.

“I think the message is pretty clear,” she said. “Anything that would encourage people to slow down and pay attention is good for the neighborhoods.”

Keith Swanson, who sits on the Armatage neighborhood board and the city’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, raised the issue with the committee after last month’s neighborhood meeting.

“I think she’s very justified,” Swanson said, adding that the street is dangerous enough to begin with, let alone for a child who doesn’t understand the implications of traffic. “With an ‘Autistic Child’ sign, you would hopefully be more cautious of a child’s movements.”

And as a driver who travels that stretch of Xerxes Avenue almost daily, Swanson said a warning about a child with autism is a service to the driver as much as the child and family.

“I live in this neighborhood, and I would want to know this information,” Swanson said. “If something happened and the child got hit or hurt, everybody would feel bad. This is helping drivers understand the child may do something unpredictable.”

And that would be the purpose of the sign, Watson said: “The intent of the sign is to make people be aware they need to be cautious when they drive in this area.”