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« Older adults and autism | Main | What's in an autism awareness card? »


Autism alert cards in times of trouble

Many advocates suggest someone with autism carry a card that helps explain that the bearer may have difficulties communicating or responding to orders. These cards may be lifelines when people with autism get lost, encounter police, or even in everyday life where others may be puzzled or frightened by their mannerisms.

Here's a story relayed by British psychologist Richard Mills - he's Director of Research for the National Autistic Society - about how an autism awareness card helped a student with autism on the London subway. It reveals how people with autism don't often understand social boundaries and how their rigid behaviours can easily be misunderstood:

"He was a student who attended a college for people with autism. He was a very tall, athletic and handsome African teenager, and had very little verbal communication ability but was able to travel quite independently.

He had a preferred seat in a particular carriage on the Tube and whenever possible he would sit in it. One evening he was going home after a social event and because it was quite late there was only one other passenger, an older lady in the carriage, and because she was sitting next to his preferred seat, he sat next to her.

She suddenly got off at the next stop and complained to staff that she had felt threatened by him sitting next to her and thought she was going to be mugged.

He was apprehended by transport staff and police a couple of stations down the line. He did not initially respond to questions, but fortunately he had in his wallet with his travel pass an autism alert card and the police were able to put it all together. The police called his mum, explained what had happened and he was allowed to go home. If he hadn't had the card, it's easy to see how the situation could have gotten out of hand.

"It's part of this instinctive difficulty in understanding social context. You can teach behaviours, but without context, they don't really mean anything."

Mills adds:

"In London, on the tube, particularly at that time it was common for a lot of crime to be committed. Sitting next to someone causing them to feel threatened is an assault - in English law - touching them adds the charge of battery.  He was not charged and the lady accepted the explanation. Part of the difficulty in this case was the absence of any sign that the young man might be different or disabled.  

"I would make the point that people with autism are much more likely to be victims of crime and bullying. In fact, this particular young man had on another occasion been accosted near his home by a gang of youths who knew he had a disability and persuaded him to hand over his watch and some money."  


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  • Welcome to the Toronto Star's autism blog, a daily amalgam of breaking news stories, features, trends and ideas flowing from our Autism Project. The blog is written by Star reporters: Kate Allen, Andrea Gordon, Laurie Monsebraaten, Kris Rushowy, Leslie Scrivener, and Tanya Talaga.

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