News / Calgary

Autism Spectrum Disorder riders underserved by Transit: U of C Study

Calgary Transit offers training sessions for younger riders with special needs

Metro File

Imagine for a minute you have enough independence to keep a steady job, but can't take public transit or drive and relying on family members to ferry to to work – this is the reality of many Calgarians with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The University of Calgary School of Public Policy published a report this month on the transportation challenges faced by individuals living with Autism Spectrum Disorder suggesting there's a gap in transportation research, policy and programming for individuals with the neurological disorder.

The study took three different autistic subjects, high functioning, medium level ability and someone with low abilities, and did a case study based on what they needed over a typical transit rider.

"People with autism have trouble with organizing skills, planning skills, they have social challenges, they may have behaviours that are repetitive, they may have some sensory issues," said Carolyn Dudley, Research Associate at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy.

She said municipalities with higher technology initiatives tend to be more responsive to people with autism but that overall Transit training in four different provinces tends towards the elderly and physically disabled.

"There's very little in place for those with behavioural needs," Dudley said. "Calgary could probably improve on unique transit training programs to address those issues, special needs bussing issues around severe behaviours could be improved, and I think generally just hearing the voices of people who have high and low functioning needs because the range of the spectrum is different for those who have high and low needs."

Calgary Transit said they have many programs in place for those with ASD such as travel training, and transit training camps for younger commuters.

“Calgary Transit Access does provide for service for people whose cognitive challenges impede their ability to use conventional transit services (Calgary Transit fixed route)," wrote spokesperson Ron Collins. "We provide travel training for all customers including those with cognitive challenges which helps them to become familiar with transit and how to use it.  The renovations that CT is making to current LRT stations and design on new stations, incorporates best practices in consistent street furniture layout and access. Funding of course is always an ongoing issue.”

But Lyndon Parakin, the executive director with the Autism Calgary Association, said in many ways Calgary Transit is still lacking in resources for those on the spectrum.

For those who are high functioning, Parakin said the accessibility service gets a B plus. Transit is often understanding when people plead their case for access to the service – even if on the surface they don't appear to need special support. But when it comes to those who are on the opposite side of the spectrum more could be done to understand and help riders with the condition.

"People with autism are feeling like they don't belong, to me that measures the importance of making this accessibility," Parakin said. "There's sufficient people where it's not working for them because the space accommodations aren't there…In my ideal world and Access Calgary system would have an assistant to the driver on the bus, and it would resolve all problems, it's been there in the past, but it's been cut because it's too costly."

His harsh criticisms are weighed with the fact that the system's come a long way, he doesn't want to come off too negative.

"There's some misunderstanding for autism," Parakin said.

He explained that in cases where his group steps in to help families fight for service autism is usually severe and a rider has come up against behavioural issues or outbursts prompting transit to demand an aide be present with the rider.

"The family says they need an empty seat and the response from access Calgary is 'we're already having trouble keeping up with demand, we can't afford an empty seat,' but they can afford to have that empty seat filled by an aide employed by the family."