88% of disabled people say services provided within walking distance of where they live would help them walk or wheel more. Rowan lives in Swansea with her family and was diagnosed with autism aged 14. In this blog, she tells us about the challenges she experiences when making local journeys. As a participant of our Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry, she also shares her thoughts on what needs to change to make travel safer and more accessible for autistic people.
Rowan, pictured on the right with other participants from the Disabled Citizens' Inquiry. Credit: Tom Hughes/Sustrans
“Autism makes lots of things in my life difficult.
“I struggle with social dynamics and get overwhelmed by things like noise, lights or having people too close to me.
“I hardly go out on my own and rely on lifts from my mum if I need to be somewhere.
“Feeling like I can’t easily get around affects my social life and my opportunities.
“I want to work, but when I got a job interview at a supermarket, it was just too far away.”
Walking needs to feel safe
We asked Rowan to tell us about making journeys on foot. She explained:
“When I’m out walking on my own, I look at the floor constantly.
“I blinker myself and wear headphones to avoid getting overstimulated.
“To walk anywhere, I need to feel I’m in a safe environment.
“Recently we moved to a new neighbourhood which feels safer than where we used to live.
“This means I can now take our dogs out for walks sometimes.”
Travelling on public transport with autism
We asked Rowan how she experiences public transport. She told us:
“If I go somewhere by myself, I have to plan my journey in detail.
“I always need to be in control of a situation.
“If anything goes wrong, even something small, I experience sensory overload and feel very upset.
“Just getting on a bus can be hard.
“Being asked questions about the type of ticket or my age can make me panic.
“Using the bus station is a total no-no, I find the smells and sounds overwhelming.
“There are too many lights and too many people close to me.”
No bus pass means less walking
Rowan explained that travelling independently by bus was much easier when she had a bus pass.
“It gave me real security, as I could just put my headphones on, keep my eyes down, show my pass and not talk to the driver.
“But now I’ve been told I’m ‘not disabled enough’ to qualify.
“Losing my pass has made me feel too scared to go out and travel on my own.
“People who make these decisions have to recognise that a disability like autism can create as many barriers to getting around as a physical disability.”
The removal of Rowan’s bus pass not only means fewer bus journeys, but fewer walking journeys too.
Though walking to and from bus stops is not without its challenges, these trips did offer Rowan exercise and fresh air.
This time which was once spent outdoors is now spent indoors or in her mum’s car.
Kindness can make all the difference
We asked Rowan to tell us about positive journeys she’s made, and what makes it easier for her to get around. She explained:
“I had a really good experience on the train from Swansea to Cardiff to meet a friend.
“I’d done loads of planning before the journey, but when I got to the station, it was really crowded as there was a Stereophonics gig on.
“I felt so overwhelmed.
“The lady in the ticket office was an angel.
“When she saw I was struggling, she printed off train times for me and even opened another till.
“On the train, I sat in the first quiet place I could find.
“When I realised I’d chosen a First Class carriage by mistake, I started to have a panic attack.
“Once I found that seat, I just felt like ‘I can’t go back, I can’t reverse’.
“Being told I’d got that stage of the journey wrong would have thrown me completely.
“Thankfully, I had my card which explains I have autism.
“The conductor was so kind and let me stay there.
“It was people’s kindness that day that made the difference.
“If everyone was like them, my life would be so much easier.”
The challenges of a hidden disability
“Travelling with a friend who has a physical disability opened my eyes to what a different experience he has.
“He uses a wheelchair, and it was like having a superpower as everyone moved out of the way.
“A physical disability is obvious and people know what to do straight away.
“But when people look at me they’re not sure; they’re doubting.
“I’m so thankful my friend gets that response.
“But with me, sometimes people just don’t get it and that’s when I panic.”
The transport sector needs to understand autism
“Autism and other hidden disabilities need to be recognised and understood just as much as physical disabilities.
“Especially by the people who make decisions on our local communities, infrastructure and transport.
“People who work for bus and train companies also need autism awareness training.
“They could wear a badge, so I’d know who will understand me if I approach them.
“That would make such a difference.
“More support needs to be there for us, otherwise there’s a risk autistic people will become reclusive.
“The barriers I experience when going from place to place are different, but just as valid.”