Philbrick: Driving autism acceptance—not just awareness—in April
VTA operates a paratransit service called Access to help people with disabilities and mobility issues travel around Santa Clara County. Photo courtesy of VTA.

Most of us know someone with autism, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 1 in 44 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

Individuals with autism face hurdles in opportunities and support when it comes to education, employment, housing, health care and—you guessed it—transportation. How can we make transportation equitable and accessible for autistic people while advocating for autism acceptance this month and all year long?

The United Nations celebrates World Autism Awareness Day every year on April 2, and formal efforts to spread awareness of autism in April have been ongoing in the United States since at least 1965 when the Autism Society of America (AAM) was founded. However, since 2021 AAM and other leading disability organizations have shifted the official language of this important event from “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month.” Why?

Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that can affect an individual’s communication, social skills, self-regulation, relationships and more. Autism diagnosis is five times more common in boys than girls, and it occurs across all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. Today, more than 3.5 million adults in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum, and autism spectrum disorders are the fastest growing developmental disabilities in the U.S.

Some people with autism need significant support in their lives on a daily basis, while others need less or none. Despite how common this neurodivergence is, people with autism often face societal barriers. Fostering acceptance along with awareness can ignite much needed change.

According to AAM, 85% of autistic adults with a college education are unemployed. People with autism face discrimination everywhere, including in the workplace, but even those who overcome employment barriers are frequently held back by difficulties getting to work.

Currently, many state programs provide funding for people with autism to take individualized transit training courses to empower individuals to travel independently, use subsidized or free transit passes, or access paratransit. Some researchers advocate for increased funding for services like ride-hailing when transit is unavailable, but others point to the developing promise of automated vehicles.

Research also indicates young adults with autism have significant potential to live independently; however, only 17% actually do. Why this disparity? In part, this is predicated on the inability to drive, which proves a significant barrier to independent living.

Many diagnostic factors associated with autism may contribute to difficulties driving a personal vehicle. People with autism may encounter challenges in executive function, social-cognitive, motor, sensory perception and integration of sensory-motor skills, all of which can make driving more difficult. Although data varies according to region, overall evidence suggests only one-third of people with autism have a driver’s license, with one 2016 study showing 61.4% of respondents with a driver’s license indicated having driving difficulties.

As automated vehicles continue to advance and become more mainstream, this technology has significant potential to empower people with autism to get where they need to be. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International defines five levels of autonomous vehicles, and recent research has explored how each level could practically be used to address the specific driving needs of individuals with autism. One study showed that SAE Level 4 “high automation,” in which vehicles can operate without a human driver under certain conditions—depending on weather, road type, speed—is the most promising option to address this need by affordably expanding transit access in lower-density environments.

Transportation is for everyone, a necessary part of our daily lives. When determined to be effective, public funding should be available to assist people with autism to use or purchase autonomous vehicle technology, just as funding is available for those with physical disabilities to modify vehicles with adaptive equipment. We need more research to understand the needs of autistic individuals so that our policies surrounding transit can exemplify equity for all.

Let us remember this month—and always—to advocate for autism acceptance along with awareness and to embrace diversity in all its forms.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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