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Rhode Island bill would give autistic drivers option for special license

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(PROVIDENCE, R.I.) — For autistic drivers, a police stop or emergency while driving can be a scary situation, according to Joanne G. Quinn, the executive director of the non-profit, The Autism Project.

Sirens, flashing lights, and a law enforcement member asking questions can be too much to handle for someone who is autistic, Quinn, who has an autistic son, told ABC News.

“There is no way to know how you’ll react in one of those encounters,” she said. “And sometimes individuals’ reactions or how they answer a question can get them into trouble with an officer who doesn’t know they’re autistic.”

A bill introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives this week would give autistic drivers an option to alert others about their disability with special designations on their license and vehicle.

Lawmakers said it would improve the safety of autistic drivers, however, some advocates argued that in its current form, the specialized license could lead to discrimination and harassment.

Rhode Island House Rep. Samuel Azzinaro introduced the bill that would allow the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to offer an optional driver’s license “that is clearly marked ‘autism,'” and decals that are “marked ‘autism'” that can be affixed to a vehicle in a “conspicuous place,” according to the legislation’s current language.

Drivers would also have the option of receiving blue envelopes that contain “information regarding ways to enhance effective communication between a police officer and a person with autism spectrum disorder,” the bill said.

Connecticut launched a similar blue envelope program for autistic drivers in 2020.

Quinn said she supported the bill’s purpose, because it would help resolve an ongoing issue affecting the autistic community, which is communication between them and law enforcement.

She said first responder academies have been improving their training to understand how to communicate with autistic individuals properly, and her group has made videos to educate those departments about the community.

However, Quinn said there is still work to be done, especially when it comes to emergencies, and a designated license and information card would go a long way.

“Either it’s a pullover or a crash, they see the [marker], hopefully, they are educated to know what it is, and in the glove compartment is information about the driver,” Quinn said. “The purpose for our community is if it’s a stop in the highway it gives the officer a heads up.”

During a hearing on the bill Wednesday, some autistic residents also expressed support. Toby Silva, a 17-year-old Rhode Island resident who spoke through an electronic device, told lawmakers that he researched the Connecticut law and said Rhode Island would benefit from similar options for drivers.

“The goal is to avoid misunderstanding between the officer and the driver,” he said.

Some advocates, however, warned that putting an autistic person’s disability in big letters on an official ID can lead to problems.

Mireille Sayaf, the executive director of the Ocean State Center For Independent Living, sent a letter to the House of Representatives’ Health & Human Services Committee Wednesday, noting that such a designation on an official identification document would “lead to stereotyping and breaches of the individual’s confidentiality.”

“While the intent behind the bill to improve interactions with law enforcement is good, we feel that there are less intrusive ways to accomplish this goal that would lead to less stigma for persons on the autism spectrum,” she wrote.

Quinn said she agreed that the wording or markings on those special licenses and car decals must be more discreet.

“There should be another way, like a blue dot, or strip that is subtle and law enforcement should be informed about it,” she said.

Azzinaro, who didn’t immediately return messages to ABC News’ request for comment, told the committee that the bill’s language is not final and he is open to tweaking it based on the community’s input.

He also told the committee that he would consider a recommendation for drivers to apply for a special placard on their dashboard.

Quinn said whatever comes of the bill, it is important that lawmakers hear more from autistic drivers and residents, and she encouraged the community to weigh in.

“We need the neurodivergent voice and we need them at the table to tell us what works best for them,” she said.

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