Philly nonprofit looking to keep autistic individuals safe with street signs

Charles Watson Image
Friday, February 9, 2024
Nonprofit looking to keep autistic individuals safe with street signs
Philly nonprofit looking to keep autistic individuals safe with street signs

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A Philadelphia nonprofit is helping to roll out new signage to bring awareness to autistic individuals living in neighborhoods around the city.

The new sign, which reads "Autistic Person Area," was the creation of Project Elijah Empowering Autism (PEEA), a nonprofit that aims to help individuals and families in underserved communities who are living with the disorder.

The nonprofit was founded 20 years ago by Eric Williams, who named the organization after his 25-year-old son Elijah, who was diagnosed at the age of 3.

"He's a great young man," Williams said of Elijah.

Williams, who has spent the better part of 25 years learning about the disorder that makes Elijah one of a kind, said the new sign was meant to bring an extra layer of protection for individuals with autism.

"The whole process behind it was my advocacy and awareness mission to better the lives of individuals with autism and unique abilities," Williams told Action News.

He also pointed to the deadly encounter between police and Walter Wallace, a 27-year-old who was shot and killed by officers after he approached them with a knife during a mental health crisis in 2020.

Williams said the incident happened around the corner from the street where he raised Elijah. And even though Wallace wasn't autistic, Williams said the new signage could have made a difference in how officers approached Wallace's mental health crisis.

"There had to be an extra layer of protection," he said. "So something like a street sign that could've been like a visual cue for first-time responders could've helped. And that could've been a difference in that young man's life."

After months-long talks and planning with the Philadelphia Streets Department, that visual cue is now a fixture on Philadelphia streets, with the first sign going up earlier this month on the 200 block Millick Street in the Cobbs Creek section where Elijah grew up and still frequents.

"The whole process took a little over a year for me to do. I was meeting with the Streets Department, the traffic division, and just trying to get them to hear me," Williams explained.

Now with the sign installed, PEEA is hoping to spread the word that its extra layer of protection is readily available for autistic individuals and families around the city.

Williams said PEEA has set up a two-step application to be filled out by those who are interested. After the application is processed and the street is assessed, Williams said a sign should be installed within six to eight weeks.

"Within that short period of time, we've processed over 200 applications. And applications are not just coming from Philadelphia residents," he said.

PEEA plans on using the applications it receives to aggregate data detailing where the signs are placed in the city. The hope is that information can go into a database that is available to first responders so they are aware of the presence of individuals with disorders, such as autism, when they respond to calls.

"The next move is to go to City Council and to Harrisburg, and rather me having a conversation or them watching on social media, I can show the documentation that this is an effective initiative that we're doing."