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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autism in a public place

A young man with autism ended up in the news this week in connection with a late-night altercation on a city bus. The story highlights the vulnerability of people with autism when they go out into the public sphere:

The problem for people with autism is that their disability can be largely invisible … until suddenly, it isn’t. When the general public sees someone in a wheelchair, or holding a white cane, they will usually be kind and may even go out of their way to accommodate the person’s obvious disability. No one would dream of berating the disabled person … telling them to get out of their d--- chair and walk up the steps, or just read the f---ing sign. Autism is a profound disability in social communication and interaction – it’s not a choice, or an excuse, it’s a neurological difference. When a person with autism makes glaring social errors in a public place (missing the social cues to be quiet, not discriminating between public and private topics, saying out loud the things that other people “keep in their thought bubbles”), there is little tolerance because their disability is not obvious to those who don’t know autism. The behaviour looks like rudeness and callous disregard for the other people in the situation.

I worry all the time about the teens and young adults on my caseload. Most of them rely on public transit to get to school and work placements – their bus pass is key to their independence. But any given time they step onto a transit vehicle could be the time that ends up as a front page newspaper story. Buses are loud and crowded with all sorts of people, any one of whom could take offence at the odd language or behaviour my clients might show, any one of whom might give them a loud and angry reaction. People with autism are already stressed when they’re in a crowded public place – when you add in (from their perspective) random anger and abuse from strangers, you can cause that person to totally disintegrate. It was fortunate for all people involved in this story that the young man with autism retained enough presence of mind to make it home safely following the altercation with the bus driver.

The city needs to address this topic with all of their public employees. The population of young adults with autism is growing, and they are not going to stay at home in their rooms. Sensitivity training (along the lines of what we have provided for years in school situations and through our Typical Teens social groups) for all city workers who interface directly with the public will be a key piece in solving this problem. I have found that once people have a true understanding of what the world looks like through the eyes of a person with autism, the rest of the solution naturally follows. Education is the answer.

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