SAN JOSE, Calif. — Whenever Misti Foletta let her son play outdoors, she made sure to tell her neighbors that he had autism, warning them that he might hit and kick their children or yank them off their bikes.

“The look on their faces was, ‘Oh my God, what?’ ” said Foletta, a San Jose mother of three children, including a younger son who also has autism.

But they were quickly relieved when Foletta assured them that she would always be within arm’s reach. Today, after years of behavior therapy and hard work to curb his outbursts, her 12-year-old son can play inside neighbors’ homes, she said — without her by his side.

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With the right therapy and supervision — and a good dose of compassion and patience from friends and neighbors — many children with autism can learn to interact safely with schoolmates and neighbors, say experts and parents of children with autism.

Recent headlines about the Sunnyvale neighbors fighting in court over whether an 11-year-old boy with autism was a public nuisance is so unusual, they say, that it’s caused a host of misconceptions about living alongside children with autism.

“If you look around, most autistic kids are very peaceful — they’re not very social,” said Dr. Antonio Hardan, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “In terms of aggression towards others, it’s not very common.”

When aggression surfaces, experts say, it’s often because the children have limited verbal ability or none at all.

So when these individuals with autism want something — to walk, drink water or eat food, for example — or just want to avoid something not pleasing to them, they may push, pull, hit or bite, though that’s more often directed at adults, such as their parents, teachers and therapists, than at other children.

“Their communication skill deficits put them at risk of developing these behaviors,” said Bridget Taylor, co-founder and executive director of the Alpine Learning Group in New Jersey. “Because they are unable to communicate, they don’t have the skills to negotiate or interact better.”

Experts say it’s difficult to make generalizations about people with autism.

“There’s a saying in the autism community: If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Taylor said.

Still, she and others say the earlier these children can be evaluated and assessed, the better their parents can understand what conditions trigger the aggressive behavior. With an early diagnosis, therapists can develop a plan that helps a person with autism learn more appropriate ways of getting their needs met, said Sally Rogers, a professor at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, started by families of children with autism.

While the lawsuit by the Sunnyvale neighbors seemed like an overreaction to many, the growing numbers of people with autism in the U.S. would suggest that conflicts are inevitable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people are being diagnosed with what is called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, though it’s unclear how much of this increase is due to a broader definition of autism and better efforts in diagnosis.

In the U.S., about 1 in every 68 children has been diagnosed with ASD — in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. But it is almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) than girls (1 in 189).

As parents face the challenges of raising children with autism, many say it’s important for the public to show compassion and help children with autism adjust to their community. Residents in the Sunnyvale neighborhood say they did just that, but that the boy’s menacing behavior continued until they felt like they were on “red alert” every time their children and the boy were outside at the same time.

When an effort to create a safety plan for the block broke down, two couples sued the boy’s parents in June 2014. Even though the family moved away a year ago, the two couples — one of whom moved from their rental home last month — are seeking unspecified damages. Last week, the couples and the boy’s parents agreed to meet with a judge this month to try to resolve their differences through mediation.

San Jose resident Katie Heredia, the mother of a more verbal 7-year-old boy with autism, said trying to change her son’s behaviors takes time. When he learns a process, “he has to do it over and over and over again.” And even after he finally appears to grasp something, he may forget it and a new approach will be needed.

Still, Heredia can understand how upset the Sunnyvale neighbors were that the boy would lash out at their children.

“I’m not excusing the behavior,” she said, “but at the same time, both sides have to understand the other and come to the table.”

© 2015 San Jose Mercury News
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