For most teenagers learning to drive is a rite of passage. For teens on the autism spectrum learning to drive can be overwhelming and anxiety provoking. In order to be able to drive safely a driver needs to be able to anticipate the intentions of others. This necessary skill directly confronts individuals on the autism spectrum with their impairment in their ability to demonstrate Theory of the Mind, or the ability to perceive how others think. This deficit significantly limits their ability to be independent and to be employed. The lack of reliable transportation is one of the most significant barriers to employment for individuals with a variety of disabilities. Since many individuals on the autism spectrum cannot drive, then they must rely upon public transportation.
In order to be able to use public transportation independently, individuals on the autism spectrum must be trained systematically. Ideally, habituating the individual would start early in childhood. Taking trips with parents on buses, subways, and trains is a wonderful way to incorporate both travel training and environmentally friendly transportation. If the use of public transportation is incorporated into the family’s daily life then the shift from traveling with parents to traveling independently will not be as dramatic.
Parents are a child’s most important teachers. While on the trips with their child, parents can take the opportunity to explicitly teach their child important safety issues; procedures to enact if they become separated from their parents, what to do if they are lost, and who are safe people to ask for help. Cell phone usage in emergency situations should be a part of the discussions. Helping the child pre-program telephone numbers in the cell phone is extremely helpful. Having emergency contact numbers pre-programmed in the speed dial feature will help to avoid panic if the child forgets a telephone number when faced with a stressful travel situation.
As the child gets older, parents can give the child more responsibility for the planning and leading of the family outings on public transportation. Many children on the autism spectrum have an affinity for computers and the internet. This is a perfect opportunity for the child to help plan routes and familiarize themselves with maps and schedules. One caveat in reference to schedules should be noted: the schedules are approximate times and there are many changes. Some children on the spectrum will suffer melt downs if a bus or train is late or a route has been changed. Help them anticipate inconsistencies in the schedules and routes. Map reading skills are a critical skill to teach in this early phase.
The eventual behavior we hope the individual will achieve is the independent use of public transportation. This is a complex behavior with several layers of skills. Parents should use successive approximations to reach the desired behavior. In other words, start by leading a trip with the child and explicitly discuss where are they headed and how do they know where they are going. During later trips on the same route, the parent should turn to her son or daughter and have them tell the parent where they should board the train or bus and when they should get off. Have the child identify where public maps and other information are displayed. Review on each trip safety procedures and what to do when something unexpected occurs. The next step in the process involves having the older child travel one stop along a familiar route unescorted by the parent. Enlist older siblings or family friends in the process. They can wait for the individual with autism at the next stop or they can unobtrusively observe the individual on the train or bus and give feedback to the parent as to the appropriateness of his or her behavior. The number of stops that the individual travels unescorted should be extended as the person’s skills and confidence level increase. Once the individual masters a given route, then other routes can be explored as well as transferring between different modes of transportation, i.e., from buses to trains and vice versa. To increase the individual’s intrinsic interest in the travel training the final destinations should be meaningful and pleasurable (e.g. a favorite museum, restaurant, store, a friend’s house, an aquarium, etc.).
Part of the planning of the outings should include how to deal with sensory integration issues. Many individuals on the autism spectrum are sensitive to sounds and smells. The sound of screeching subway car breaks or the hiss of pneumatic lifts on buses can be excruciating and may trigger an emotional outburst. MP3 players or portable video gaming systems with earphones can help the individual cope with the overwhelming sounds. One way to deal with overwhelming smells is to have the individual carry a handkerchief that has been sprayed with a fragrance that the individual finds soothing.
Parents should consider enlisting assistance in travel training when it appears that their efforts are not producing the desired results. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Travel training goals can be written into the IEP. A young child’s IEP goals can include pedestrian skills. Once the child reaches age 14 his or her transition plan can include learning how to use mass transit. A second source of assistance for the school-aged child is summer programs. Some summer programs explicitly train students on the autism spectrum to use mass transit. When an individual reaches post-secondary age parents can enlist the assistance of private post-secondary programs and social service agencies as well as state offices of developmental disabilities and vocational rehabilitative services to provide travel training services.
Before enrolling an individual with autism in a travel training program, the parent should ask for a copy of the curriculum. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (www.NICHCY.org) website has an excellent document entitled Travel Training for Youth with Disabilities (1996) which outlines best practices of travel training programs. It is a useful document to help in writing IEP goals and evaluating a travel training program. Mastery of travel training skills not only increases a person on the autism spectrum’s confidence and employability, but also reduces the burden on the family of always having to drive or escort the person. Systematic travel training helps insure safe and successful independent travel.
Dr. Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program. He is also a research associate at the Yale Child Study Center’s Developmental Disabilities Clinic and is assigned to the autism unit. The publication of this article was made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Health, LRP grant (Number, L30HD053966-01).