Autism advocates urge lawmakers to pass driver’s license safety law

By: - October 12, 2023 5:30 am

Tom Taylor, co-chair of Autistic Adults of Oklahoma, urges lawmakers to pass legislation to allow people with autism to include it on their driver’s license or state identification card during a hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol. (Photo by Mindy Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

Advocates urged lawmakers on Wednesday to allow people with autism to register their disability on driver’s licenses and state identification cards to enhance safety during police interactions.

Miscommunication between a person with autism and an officer can escalate to unnecessary use of force, injury and even death, experts said.

Advocates said most people who have autism do not have intellectual disabilities, which means they are more likely to drive. But people with autism can struggle to communicate and can be overwhelmed by sensory information such as loud sound, bright light and touch.

Lawmakers listened to expert testimony on the issue during an interim study on Wednesday at the state Capitol. Interim studies can help lawmakers craft potential legislation.

Tom Taylor, who has high-functioning autism, said when someone with the disorder becomes overwhelmed, they cannot process information, such as complying with police commands, until they become calm.

“When the combination of emotion and sensory inputs overloads our brain, the meltdown is typically triggered,” Taylor said. “Meltdown is essentially a fight-or-flight response reaction.”

Taylor, who is co-chair of Autistic Adults of Oklahoma, also said if an officer is not aware of the diagnosis, some behaviors are easy to misinterpret as non compliance, especially repetitive movement of the hands or rocking back and forth, called a stim.

“If you don’t make eye contact, it’s generally the (officer’s) training that they’re being dishonest,” he said. “If you’re nervous, there must be a reason to be nervous. If you’re like me, and you have a stim, this person is probably on drugs.”

Emily Scott, executive director of the Autism Foundation of Oklahoma, told lawmakers that members are asking for a voluntary autism designation on driver’s licenses and state identification cards. She said police departments are requesting the designation as well.

“This knowledge can make a major difference in how they respond or provide medical assistance to these Oklahomans that are often at their most vulnerable in high stress and crisis situations,” Scott said.

Oklahoma City firefighter Ryan Woodward provides training across the state on autism.

He said training is important, but state identification cards are needed to immediately notify the officer of the diagnosis because it can prevent interactions “from going over the top.”

“Everybody wants the training,” Woodward said. “But without that front-loading information, we’re still going to run into problems without knowing someone is on the spectrum.”


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Mindy Ragan Wood
Mindy Ragan Wood

Mindy covers the legislature for Oklahoma Voice. Her areas of focus include infrastructure, municipal government policies, and human services with an emphasis on the needs of intellectually vulnerable and physically challenged adults.