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My autistic son struggles on public transport – now I'm fighting to change the way we travel

As I work on the railway, I began reflecting on what I could do not just for Archie but for other passengers travelling with disabilities like his. And now I've found a way to help

Natalie Leister
Wednesday 23 October 2019 10:54 BST
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What is autism spectrum disorder?

As a parent, there’s nothing worse than hearing your child is in distress or unhappy. So when my son Archie was diagnosed with autism earlier this year, I'll be completely honest, I cried.

They were tears of relief, as the diagnosis had taken years to get. After lengthy waiting lists and being pushed from pillar to post, I’d resigned myself to never knowing why Archie was struggling. But they were also tears of fear. Like any parent in my situation, I instantly worried about what happens next and how my child would cope.

This year Archie started senior school, which requires him to catch two separate trains each day. My son’s aspirations for secondary school are the same as any other child: to make friends, learn new things and do all the normal things kids his age want to do. But with autism, something as simple as a disruption on the journey to or from school can have a huge impact, turning his world upside down. It’s something that many people, including myself as his mother, find hard to comprehend.

Every morning is different with Archie depending on how he feels, and we have to work hard to get him used to what is the "right" and "wrong” way to behave on a train, and how to travel safely. We also need to prepare him on what to do when things do go wrong – and who to contact if it does.

As I work on the railway, I began reflecting more and more on what I could do not just for Archie but for other passengers travelling with disabilities like his, and how to allay the concerns of other parents, carers, friends and family who’s loved ones are seeking to, just like everyone else, make their way through life feeling independent yet supported.

That’s when I came across the “Just A Minute” (JAM) card and the "sunflower lanyard" – two schemes whose principal aims are to discreetly indicate to staff and the public that the person in possession of either may require a little more time or support when travelling. The schemes can not only help people like my son with autism but also elderly passengers with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The card is intended to support passengers by asking others to have patience, whereas the sunflower lanyard is a way to indicate to transport staff that the passenger has a hidden disability. Staff can also wear a badge to indicate they are aware of the scheme and have received specialist training to better understand what might be needed of them.

Just like Archie, every morning is different for me when I wake up, depending on how I feel about his needs. Now I feel better knowing that my child’s commute to and home from school is safeguarded even further. I know that someone is around who understands the need to take the extra minute in case Archie is having issues, as well as the correct way to approach him and try to calm him down. It helps him, and it helps my day get off to a better start.

My job at work now is to pilot both schemes at my company, Southeastern, to get a clear indication for how they work and ensure training is completely up to scratch before rolling them across the 176 stations and 540 miles of railway network that we operate.

It’s amazing what you can do when you have a passion to positively effect change for the ones you love. I hope that this work, and these initiatives, will give the same peace of mind to others.

Natalie Leister is an area manager for Southeastern railway. For more information on how to apply for a sunflower lanyard or JAM card, speak to Southeastern station staff

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