All parents worry about their teens driving, but parents of children with autism face special concerns. An autistic teen pulled over for a traffic violation or involved in a car accident may not be able to make himself or herself understood and an atypical demeanor may cause concern for law officers.
Jennifer (England ’85) Allen, founder and executive director of Aspergers101, knows firsthand about those concerns. Her son, Samuel, has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. When Sam became a teen driver, Jennifer did more than just worry. She turned her concerns into action by creating a statewide initiative called “Driving with Autism.”
Working with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, she created a program that provides training for law enforcement officials and allows for a voluntary restriction code to be placed on Texas driver’s licenses that informs them about potential interaction challenges.
A public service announcement, featuring Samuel Allen as the spokesperson, was unveiled in January urging drivers with autism to consider applying for the code. The PSA has been aired on multiple TV stations throughout the state.
Sam, who is now 23, said having the marker on his driver’s license feels “like a big safety net,” and makes him more comfortable when he gets in his car.
The restriction code may be used by people with other communication challenges as well.
“It not only protects the autism and Asperger community, but also provides a buffer for those citizens with hearing difficulties or deafness, Parkinson’s disease, mild intellectual disabilities, PTSD and more,” said Jennifer. “It protects both the person with the communication challenge as well as the law enforcement officer who otherwise might have misinterpreted delayed speech for defiant behavior.”
In fact, Jennifer is now working with the Texas Governors Committee on People with Disabilities to produce a PSA targeting the deaf community. Seven percent of the state’s population is hearing impaired, she said. Emma Faye Rudkin, founder of Aid the Silent and the first deaf Miss San Antonio titleholder, will be spokesperson for the new spot to be released statewide in early summer 2018.
Jennifer’s work is far from over and she is looking to make changes in the next legislature session.
“After three years of attempting to get the ‘Communication Impediment with a Peace Officer’ in the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, we finally have our breakthrough,” she said. “Texas DPS, DMV and the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities are behind me as we look to the next Texas Legislative Session to pass a law that will allow citizens the option to register their vehicle through the DMV as a person with a communication impediment.”
The benefit to this option is that an officer engaged in a pullover scenario would learn of a person’s communication delay immediately upon entering the license plate in the Texas Law Enforcement database, Jennifer explained. All three components of Jennifer’s initiative would then work together: training for law enforcement on communication impediments, designation on driver’s license or state ID, and officer knowledge prior to approaching the vehicle.
ABOUT JENNIFER ALLEN: Jennifer is a recipient of the 2016 ACU Distinguished Alumni Citation and the Gutenberg Award for outstanding alumni of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. After an extensive career in broadcast marketing, she and her husband searched for answers when their oldest son hit the kinder years with great difficulty. After finally learning Sam had Asperger’s Syndrome, she left her career in TV and became a full-time mother to both of her sons. Jennifer elicited the participation of her sons and together they produced several independent programs including a children’s animated series titled Ameriquest Kids (now distributed by Landmark Media) as well as a documentary and book titled, Coping to Excelling: Solutions for School-age Children Diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism or Aspergers Syndrome. She formed the nonprofit Asperger101 to provide resources related to high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.