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Efforts address transit needs of those with autism

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The New Jersey Task Force on Transportation and Mobility for Adults on the Autism Spectrum is work-ing toward improving transportation services for state residents living with the condition.

The task force is still in the fact-finding stage and will hold three public hearings and one listening session to gather personal stories from New Jersey citizens. It was formed after the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University issued a report, “Detour to the Right Place: A Study with Recommendations for Addressing the Transportation Needs and Barriers of Adults on the Autism Spectrum in New Jersey.” 

The report made several recommendations to help New Jersey residents who have autism.

“We are seeing which recommendations can be introduced without a huge structural cost,” said Cecilia Feeley, transportation autism project manager at the Rutgers center.

Feeley, who serves on the task force, added that New Jersey is an Employment First state, meaning that “competitive employment is the first and preferred posteducation activity for everyone, including people with disabilities.”

The task force’s aim is to “research the relationship between employment and transportation for adults on the autism spectrum,” she said.

The ability of persons on the autism spectrum to navigate transportation options successfully directly affects their ability to live independently and pursue opportunities in employment and continuing education, the task force said.

“The study that was the impetus for the current task force was funded through the Department of Health,” Feeley said. “Although a number of state agencies have dedicated funding to address transportation there are a number of different agencies and each is developing their own transportation services or supports.

“[We] have to identify all of the agencies – including federal, state, county and municipal tax dollars – from a variety of agencies and understand who is funding what and for whom. We could streamline services and add choices.”

Feeley said most New Jersey residents with autism face challenges when they become too old for school or when the educational entitlement ends. 

“We have met with families that relocated for school but they don’t consider relocating for adult services,” Feeley said. “And since most of a person’s life span is that working age between ages 21 to 65, the need for transportation and mobility is immense. While learning one specific route is great, learning how to use the transportation system – including safe pedestrian skills – is critical.”

She added: “We often hear stories about when a person’s jobsite moves, or a person moves to a new residence, the person often can’t get to work. It is not sustainable or realistic to take three hours to get to work for any job, especially for a part-time job or to go to New York City to commute to a job that is 10 miles away. When helping people find appropriate employment, transportation needs to be a considering factor.” 

Debbie Deissroth, corporate director of learning and development at Jefferson Health New Jersey, operates a program for adults with autism.

“There is a structure for total immersion in the workforce for high school seniors,” Deissroth said. “They spend the last year of school at our business. This is their last opportunity to create an employment plan for themselves. They serve internships at Jefferson Health New Jersey and three job assignments. The program gives them the gift of time so they get better jobs than entry-level jobs. It teaches them more complex jobs that they would normally not be considered for. The goal of Project Search is to get them permanent employment.”

“We love seeing these students flourish,” she added. “They come in hesitant and anxious and they finish confident and ready to begin work. From 30 years in human resources, this is the most successful and well-structured program I have seen.”

Yet prospective participants in such programs often have unmet transportation needs, Feeley said.

“We found that just under half of New Jersey adults with autism either do not have transportation to get to their job or do not even know if there is transportation available,” Feeley said. “Reliable and dependable transportation is needed for successful employment – but it also has to be economically feasible.”

Some task force recommendations already have been implemented in part. Those include researching the relationship between employment and transportation for adults on the autism spectrum and pursuing locational efficiency strategies of entities supporting adults with autism.

“We have met with families that relocated for school but they don’t consider relocating for adult services. And since most of a person’s life span is that working age between ages 21 to 65, the need for transportation and mobility is immense. While learning one specific route is great, learning how to use the transportation system – including safe pedestrian skills – is critical.”

– Cecilia Feeley, Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, Rutgers University

“Educate families and communities on transportation and mobility options for adults with autism,” Feeley said. “The study team has presented at a number of statewide conferences, schools and other organizations to educate people about the needs and the barriers.”

“We have found that often land/housing may be donated since it is not near transportation services,” she continued. “We have met with a few programs that prefer not to be within the public transit buffer zone. But often the adults want to have access and travel independently to work, for shopping and recreational activities.”

Meantime, Rutgers University has teamed up with the New Jersey Institute of Technology and City College of New York to develop technologies that can help persons navigate. One project involved a system to alert riders five minutes before their pickup vehicles arrived.

“We are also working with CCNY to develop pedestrian-friendly navigation systems, both indoors in complex environments such as larger train station/transit hubs and outdoor built environments,” Feeley said. “There have been several attempts for a dedicated mobility manager, but the funding has not come through. One concern about having a mobility manager – it will need to be from a long-term sustainable funding source.”

About 61.4 percent of New Jersey’s adults with autism never used any form of public transit. This includes county paratransit services and access link. While some live in areas of the state without public transit, others just never learned how to use it.

“If we want all of our New Jersey residents to be productive citizens we have to provide them with the critical tools needed – a good education that includes using the state’s public transit system including county paratransit services,” Feeley said. “We all want to achieve the American Dream and that includes persons on the autism spectrum.

“We invest in a transportation infrastructure to move people and goods – we need to be inclusive of all people. A small investment into developing an inclusive transportation and mobility system will pay off big dividends with reduced dependence including financial supports.”

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David Hutter

David Hutter


David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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