Autistic people of all ages can, and do find using public transport stressful. This can lead to them trying to avoid it, or not going out much as they do not want to have to travel on public transport. It can also mean that they do not get excited, or look forward to things as they are so worried about the travelling involved to get there. But why is this? And what can be done about it?
Why is it hard?
Queuing: This is something that comes naturally to most people, but not autistic people. The rules are odd; whoever is there first gets on first, unless someone else is old, has young children, is pregnant, and so on. Where do you stand? If someone walks off, and stands a bit away are they still in the queue? Does it depend on where the bus or tram stops i.e. if you’re closer to the door can you just get on? Or do you have to step back, and let people on who are now behind you? Do you let people off before you get on? Add to this the fact that these laws are unwritten, and it is clear why they are so hard to follow.
Sensory issues: Public transport can be noisy depending on the time of day. It can be brightly lit, it might not smell nice, and add to this the fact that everyone who is on it comes with their own smells, and sounds and it’s easy to see why it’s hard for someone with sensory issues. One of the best ways of describing it – without spending ages talking – is to ask the reader to imagine being at a loud, noisy gig. Only it’s not music you like, and the crowd is rowdy. That’s public transport at its worst for people with autism. Ok it’s not like that all the time, but there is always that worry, and even if it’s not quite that bad it can still be overwhelming on the senses.
Enforced closeness: When the tram, bus, or train is busy people end up packed together. Now no one likes this, but for someone with autism it can be a lot more than just uncomfortable or irritating. Sometimes being touched can be so uncomfortable that it is in fact painful. So if someone is pressed between a crowd of bodies, this is not merely unpleasant, but often painful.
Tips to make things easier
Write a Script, or use a Sketch or Sign: often using visual aids can help people with autism. This could take the form of a script about what to do if the bus is late, or a drawing of how to queue if you are supporting someone with autism to use public transport. Things such as planning alternative routes, and making sure to check time tables can also be represented as *Signs or Scripts or Sketches. Working in this way can help stop the autistic person becoming overloaded and make things easier for them to understand, and therefore apply to their life.
Block out noise: This can be done with head phones to play music, or even just soundproof head phones with no music playing. It cuts out on background noise, and reduces the risk of sensory overload.
Bring a familiar object: This can be a book, toy or even piece of cloth; something with a familiar smell, or feel. Just something that can help to comfort and detract the autistic person, and again reduce stress, and the risk of an overload.
Travel at quite times if you can: It might not always be possible, but avoiding rush hour, and other busy times would help. Depending on work, college, or school you might not be able to do this, but try to think before you go out about the time you are leaving the house, and how busy things will be.
Take a taxi if you can: Now taxis cost more than public transport, but if you can afford to, then it might be worth it. In some countries there are travel-based benefits that some people are entitled to. It can be used to pay for things such as taxis – so this might be worth looking into.
Travelling on public transport is something that is hard for most people with autism. Following the tips in this article should reduce some of the stress, but probably won’t reduce the anxiety and stress completely. It might be that autistic people will always find it hard to travel on public transport, but if this can become a little easier, then it’s a start.
*Details of how to create and implement Scripts, Signs and Sketches can be found in this book http://www.jkp.com/uk/helping-children-with-autism-spectrum-conditions-through-everyday-transitions.html