Maria Tennant of Lancaster believes she has all the reason she needs to want a sign on her street advising motorists that a child with autism lives there.
That reason is her 2-year-old son, who was diagnosed in January
“Unfortunately children on the spectrum are fearless and will run into the street without cognizance of what or whom is around them," she said. "A few days ago I experienced this and my heart dropped.”
But when she asked to have the sign installed, her request was refused by her village government. The reason is that federal and state laws provide for signs alerting drivers to children who are blind and hearing-impaired, but neither statute includes “autism” text signs, said Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, who was contacted by several concerned parents after their requests for the signs were denied by municipal officials. Where signs exist, as they do in several Western New York neighborhoods, they were posted despite the law.
Now, after bringing the issue to the attention of Wallace and others, parents of children who have autism may be gaining ground in their battle for safety signs.
Wallace and her staff have determined the list of approved signs can be modified, said Wallace, who pointed to the state supplement that accompanies the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and contacted Marie Dominguez, commissioner the state Department of Transportation.
“I have requested Commissioner Dominguez to allow for the ‘child with autism’ signage,” Wallace said. “Doing so will give families the peace of mind that motorists know to exercise additional caution.”
Some families already have that peace of mind. The town of Amherst installed a "Child with Autism" sign near the corner of Bailey Avenue and Cambridge Boulevard, confirmed Supervisor Brian Kulpa.
"Sometimes as a community you need to use prevailing judgment and wisdom," he explained. "When you look at it, the sign is not giving direction to drivers; it’s conveying a message of caution. With all due respect, our town thought it was in the best interest of the residents. We haven’t gotten our hands slapped, yet.”
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty in social interaction, communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. The condition is now called autism spectrum disorder because of its range of symptoms.
About 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Irene Lewis lives in Cheektowaga, but she is aware of the sign in Amherst and wonders why she was denied her request earlier this year — just like parents in Tonawanda and Hamburg, according to Wallace. Lewis keeps constant watch over her son Brayden, who is 4.
“I watch him like a hawk,” she said of her young son. “It’s exhausting. He doesn’t understand danger, and if something catches his attention, he goes.”
Laura Moeller, 31, founded Buffalo Autism Project to support other parents of autistic children and to raise awareness about the disorder. Moeller sees a need for street signs to alert parents about the wide-ranging symptoms that children with autism experience. Her son Cameron, age 6, is on the spectrum.
“I know some families are pushing for it. I see the need,” Moeller said. “We take precautions to keep him safe, but it only takes a second and he could dart out. There are some nights he wakes up and I hear that chair sliding across the floor so he can climb on it to reach the top lock on the door.”
She said she recently discovered her son playing outside in the middle of the night after he woke up, unbolted three locks and opened the front door.
“He was on the porch playing with his toys at 5 a.m. Now we installed door alarms,” said Moeller. “He’s pretty good in knowing what he should and should not do but running across the street is like running across the front lawn for him. Our immediate neighbors are aware and exercise caution.”
Susan S. Surdej, spokeswoman for the state DOT, said the department must adhere to the federal Manual on Uniform Control Devices and the NYS Supplement when authorizing highway signs. But she said the department is open to making changes.
“The department is equally committed to ensure the safety of all children and will work with the community to devise a potential solution that adheres to state and federal standards,” said Surdej.