Portsmouth denies request for autistic child sign

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Portsmouth family concerned about their autistic daughter’s safety learned Tuesday they have been denied a road sign to keep drivers alert on their street.

Erin Goad, 31, has severe autism and other developmental disabilities.

“She’s got intelligence in her, I mean she’s got the capability of learning things, but her functionality is that of a three or four-year-old. That’s her understanding level,” said Catherine Goad, Erin’s twin sister and caregiver.

Erin’s mother and sister say she is physically strong and can climb the fence in front of their home, but she doesn’t understand the danger that lurks just a few feet from her front step. With a nearby detour in place, more cars — and even city buses — are using Kirby Street.

“I’m so scared that she’s going to follow me to my car one day, that I’m not even going to see the car that hits her. I mean, it’s just crazy,” Goad said.

The Goads say it can be difficult to restrain Erin once she gets an impulse. Worst of all, she has a tendency to dart out into traffic.

“She is so strong, absolutely strong. She’ll get you in that car, and she’s done it to me in the tunnel where she all of a sudden decided she wants something, and she’s leaning over and pulling me in the tunnel,” Kathy Goad, Erin’s mother, said.

The Goad family asked the city of Portsmouth to have a road sign saying, “Slow, Autistic Child” placed on their street.

Portsmouth and other cities in Hampton Roads use the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a guide for road signs, among other things. And the manual doesn’t mention signs for deaf, blind, or autistic children.

On Tuesday, a city spokeswoman told 10 On Your Side traffic the request had indeed been denied.

City traffic engineers evaluated the Goad’s neighborhood over the past week and believe an autistic child sign could be confusing for drivers because of the proximity to Victory Elementary School; Erin’s home on Kirby Street already has signs and markings for a school zone.

So the Goads may have to pay for the sign for Erin themselves, and they are available on the internet. Mrs. Goad is willing to do that, but then location is an issue. They may end up having to place the sign in their own yard, rather than next to the road.

“The ridiculous thing is if I put it on private property, like I told the lady, the birds and the squirrels will see it, and I’m sure they’ll slow down, but the cars won’t,” Kathy Goad said.

But even national advocates for families with autism question the effectiveness of a sign, regardless of where it is placed. Cris Italia, editor of the national online magazine Autism Support Network, wrote in an online post, “Here’s why it bothers me: it sends the wrong message about autism.” Italia writes that people with autism are not necessarily helpless, although Erin has severe limitations.

“She’s autistic, she’s can’t holler at [drivers] and she’s not going to scream because she doesn’t feel pain like we do. So, if she was to get hit, she might not holler out,” Catherine Goad said.

WAVY.com asked local autism advocate, Pam Clendenen, about the situation and road signs. She is the Executive Director of Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater, a local support group.

“I think there’s a possibility that it could be stigmatizing, I don’t know why it couldn’t be ‘Adult with disability,'” she said. “Would it be a better word choice?”

She said families such as the Goads face enormous challenges.

“It’s like having a giant toddler, basically, and there are a lot of inherent dangers with having a child that functions with that ability level,” she said. “It’s constant alertness, and it’s stressful. God bless them.”

Erin’s mother said she will continue to yell at drivers to slow down, and had hoped a sign would have helped her spread the word.

“We have signs for duck crossings,” she said. “Why not autistic children?”

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