A New Law Aims to Help Drivers with Autism Prevent Miscommunication with Police

Drivers who opt in would have a code attached to their vehicle registration that would alert law enforcement officers during traffic stops that the motorist may have trouble communicating.

Drivers who opt in would have a code attached to their vehicle registration that would alert law enforcement officers during traffic stops that the motorist may have trouble communicating. Shutterstock

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Texas drivers with communication impediments, such as autism, now have the option to disclose their condition to the DMV.

Texas drivers with communication disorders such as autism now have the option to disclose their condition when registering a vehicle, allowing law enforcement officers to see during traffic stops that the motorist may have difficulty communicating.

The Samuel Allen Law, named after a 24-year-old Texas A&M-San Antonio graduate with Asperger’s syndrome, took effect Sept. 1. The legislation, passed unanimously by the Texas Legislature, allows people with conditions or disabilities that may impede communication (such as autism, deafness, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s and Asperger’s, and autism spectrum disorder) to submit a medical form disclosing their condition to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV notes the condition on the vehicle registration. The information will then pop up in the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System anytime the license plate number is run by a police officer. The registration tells the officer prior to approaching the car that the driver may have trouble communicating, but does not disclose details of his or her specific condition. Participation is voluntary.

Allen, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 10, worked on the legislation for five years with his mother. The measure was important, he said, because behaviors typical of Asperger’s (unusual body language, as well as difficulties with eye contact and facial expressions) could easily be interpreted as aggression or disobedience during an encounter with law enforcement.

“When someone like me who has autism is approached by an officer of the law during a traffic stop, anxiety may kick in, and behaviors that might be misconstrued as defiance by the officer begin to emerge,” Allen said during a news conference at the Texas State Capitol. “This initiative now allows me to drive without the worry of misunderstanding between myself and an officer, and I can confidently go on and life a live of independence. My hope is that this law will do the same for others as well.”

The proposal had broad support from health-care providers, as well as law enforcement officials, who noted that the measure would help protect both motorists and police officers by reducing the risk of misunderstandings and miscommunications.

“Providing officers with this critical information before approaching the vehicle and interacting with the driver may allow for more effective communication and a safer interaction between the parties,” Art Acevedo, Houston Chief of Police, said in a statement.

 Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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