- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - Raising an autistic child can be challenging and fretful. Just ask Theresa and Darren King, whose son was once found in an irrigation ditch after wandering away from home.

After that experience, the Wapato couple worried about the potential for other events, such as a house fire or medical crisis. How would emergency responders know they were dealing with an autistic child?

The couple painted a blue jigsaw puzzle piece - a symbol of the complexity and mystery of autism - on their mailbox as a way to alert authorities that an autistic child lived there who was likely to run off and had trouble communicating.

The Kings made sure the local fire department was aware of their son, but it’s not known how many other responders would have understood the symbol. Now, proposed legislation would make sure a similar symbol becomes well-known.

Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill to create an alert system named for Travis King, the boy who wandered from home. The bill would establish a statewide standard for reflective symbols to be placed on cars and homes to alert police, firefighters and medical responders that they are going to be dealing with someone with a disability, and it sets up a system where dispatchers can relay information to responders. The bill also calls for training emergency responders how to work with people who have disabilities.

House Bill 2287, sponsored by Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, had its first hearing in January and is awaiting a vote in the House Judiciary Committee to move it to the full House of Representatives for consideration. McCabe said the bill has bipartisan support.

If it passes, McCabe and Theresa King said, it will be the first of its kind in the nation.

“I’ve had people say, ‘We can’t believe this is not already in place,’” King said.

TRAVIS IS NOT IN THE HOUSE!

Travis, now 11, was diagnosed with autism five years ago, just before the family, living in Wapato, bought a house out in the county. The disorder makes it difficult for him to communicate with expressive language; he’s sensitive to noise and prone to running away.

And, as the Kings learned two days after moving to their new home, Travis, like many autistic children, is attracted to bodies of water.

That morning, then-6-year-old Travis wandered out of the house, and the door locked behind him, King said.

“My husband said, ‘Travis is not in the house!’ and it felt like my feet were in concrete,” King said, describing the anxiety that took hold of her.

When she went outside, she spotted the family dog near a 4-foot-deep irrigation ditch. She found Travis in the water, right by a culvert that carried the water under their wide driveway.

Travis was wet and cold, but it would have been much worse if he’d been swept into the culvert, she said.

MAKING THE HOME SAFER FOR TRAVIS

The family then started taking steps to make their home safer for Travis. With help from firefighters from Yakima County Fire District 5, where they had both been volunteer firefighters, King and her husband put a fence in the backyard.

She said the firefighters got to know Travis and learn about how autism affected his behavior and responses.

In April 2015, Darren King painted a blue jigsaw puzzle piece on their mailbox, as part of Autism Awareness Month and to alert emergency responders that there was an autistic child in the home.

Someone posted a picture of the mailbox on Facebook. It quickly got 94,000 likes along with requests from people asking how they could promote similar awareness in their communities, King said.

That’s when King asked McCabe if there could be legislation designating the image as an alert.

While it was too late to introduce it in the 2015 session, McCabe started working on the Travis Alert bill for this year’s session. And after King wrote about the bill for the Toppenish Review-Independent, McCabe said she started hearing from others asking if a similar alert system could be developed for people with Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease or other disabilities.

That’s when McCabe, with King’s support, expanded the Travis Alert idea to cover all disabilities, and changed the symbol’s color from blue to orange.

The logo could be displayed on homes or vehicles, which could help officers realize that a suspected drunken driver might actually be someone with a medical emergency.

“If someone is swerving all over the road and the police call and find out that they are diabetic, they will approach the situation differently,” McCabe said.

Also, King, a former emergency medical technician, said someone with Down syndrome will have weaker neck muscles and will need greater care in the event of a car crash.

Displaying the sticker, as well as sharing information about the disability with 911 call centers, would be strictly voluntary.

TRAINING PROGRAM FOR RESPONDERS

The bill would also direct the state Department of Health to create a training program for emergency responders in how to work with people with a disability.

In the case of people with autism, King said the training may include instructions on how to get information from people who have difficulty answering a question such as “What is the nature of your emergency?”

In that case, she said a call-taker should use simple yes-or-no questions.

McCabe said that during a committee hearing, police representatives said they were concerned about liability if an officer did not understand the meaning of the alert symbol. The bill would grant officers and responders immunity unless they were grossly negligent.

Yakima County Fire District 5 Chief Brian Vogel supports the bill, saying emergency responders want as much information as possible when going to a call. But he cautioned that the program also relies on families providing accurate information and keeping it up to date.

Years ago, people would put stickers on windows to show firefighters what room their children were sleeping in, Vogel said. The problem, he said, was when the children grew up and moved out, or the house was sold, the stickers were usually not taken down.

That would lead to firefighters spending time looking for a nonexistent victim.

The same thing could happen if an alert sticker is not removed from a car or house after the need has passed or the 911 information is not updated.

“Sometimes it becomes a tactical challenge,” Vogel said, especially if responders have to decide if they need to launch an extensive search operation at a car crash.

Firefighters, he said, have no problem with the training aspect, which he said is already part of their ongoing education program.

King said the goal of the bill is to ensure that there is a statewide training standard, so all responders know how to deal with people with disabilities.

“It’s not 100 percent perfect, but it’s 100 percent better than what we have now,” King said of the bill.

___

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, https://www.yakimaherald.com

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