By Nick Mallard
Having dealt with special-needs student in the Narragansett Regional School District for years, Carla Charter knows that being diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder shouldn't be a proverbial death sentence.
With a bill being presented to Statehouse lawmakers Tuesday, Charter and Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, hope to make the roadways safer for drivers on the autism spectrum and police officers who may pull them over.
"Most people, even those educated on the subject, can't tell if someone is autistic or has Asperger's syndrome right away," Charter said Sunday. "Even an officer educated on the topic couldn't tell if someone was on the autistic spectrum if they pulled them over at 3 in the morning. If something comes across as odd to an officer, things could escalate."
Charter noted that people dealing with autism-spectrum disorders often can have a tough time with social interactions. Some may answer questions with an honesty not seen as disarming, some may not be able to make eye contact and others may have issues with people -- including police officers -- getting in their personal space.
"Someone with social-interaction issues might do something that would cause a police officer to think something was wrong," Charter said. "We're hoping to lower the chances of something bad coming out of it. The bill would increase safety for everyone involved.
The bill would put into effect a special designation on a license that would alert dispatchers that the carrier has an autism-spectrum diagnosis. The placing of such a designation would be completely voluntary, Charter said.
"It wouldn't necessarily come back saying that the person has Asperger's, but it would alert the officer that they might not handle interactions normally," she said. "And the bill would also require officers to undergo training on how to proceed. The aim is to make things as safe as possible."
The bill will be heard Tuesday by the Joint Committee on Transportation. Charter is hoping to get volunteers to speak on the subject at the hearing.