4 MIN READ | Special Needs

How Autism and Visual Perception Affect Train Travel

Psychreg

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Train operator Great Western Railway (GWR) is now working for their second year in providing bespoke autism awareness-raising sessions for their front line staff, allowing them to be better prepared to help people living with the condition use public transport.

Looking to provide the best possible experience for all passengers, GWR is working in collaboration for a second year with UK Autism charity Anna Kennedy Online increasing autism awareness to help its staff improve in meeting the needs of those travelling with autism.

For many with an autism spectrum condition, some of the more commonly experienced issues is increased anxiety and sometimes overwhelming sensory processing information as well as the need for structure and reassurance.


There are around 700,000 people in the UK living with Autism – that’s more than 1 in every 100 people. GWR is committed to making rail accessible to all, and disability awareness forms part of that commitment. This awareness programme is improving the way GWR delivers customer service, emphasising the need for a tailored and personalised service for all customers, that meets their individual needs and wants.

Dr Anna Kennedy OBE, Chairperson and founder of the charity shared: ‘As charity we are proud to be able to help raise autism awareness for GWR staff. As a parent of two young men travelling by train has always been a difficult experience over the years due mainly to my youngest son who has significant sensory issues.

What can cause distress for him are whistles blowing, crowded platforms and noisy stations, doors banging can be a bit full-on and cause him anxiety due to a sensory overload. By sharing information with all staff this will hopefully help create a less stressful journey for him and many other families.’

Pete Dempsey, Operations Management Trainer at GWR, who is coordinating and helping to deliver the awareness sessions shared: ‘At GWR we strive to ensure all of our customers receive a great experience and part of delivering that aspiration is recognising that passengers have a wide variety of different needs, and different disabilities. We are pleased to once again work with Anna Kennedy and consultant Paul Isaac.’

Paul an autism ambassador and consultant to the charity has a diagnosis of autism and also has difficulties with visual perception. Paul and Anna met with Peter and shared how his difficulties impact on train travel.

Here are some of the issues talked about at the meeting which was then shared with GWR staff:

1. How does visual perception have an impact on your travel?

Visual perception in the simplest form is the ability to recognise faces, objects, people, buildings, etc. Seventy per cent of information is visual so if you have perceptual challenges in these areas and a lot of the cues are visual (trains, maps, stations) then you can understand from a personal perspective how difficulties arise.

2. How does visual perception have an impact on your surroundings? In train stations?

Without my tints all I can see is contrasts, colours and pieces of my surroundings with the inability to ‘join the dots’ and create meaningful contextual relevance to what is being seen. I rely a lot on placement (things having continuity), voice recognition, my own patterns of movements in a round the space and area I am going.

3. How does face blindness have an impact on travel?

When I met people during a journey I struggle with processing faces so that means that I can search for someone quite readily regardless of how many times I have seen them. So what helps is people approaching me first as I usually wonder and/or go around the place or stand waiting, I try to remember their voice patterns, accents, etc as way of gauging who they are, I look at people’s gait and patterns of movement

What also can help is the person saying who they are, stating their full name and a prior situation which we have met before.

4. How does object blindness have an impact on travel?

If one is object blind it’s the inability to ‘juggle’ multiple forms of visual information at once rendering the person not being able to see things in ‘wholes’ and only ‘pieces’. This can mean that what I struggle with is firstly getting the relevance of what I am seeing; my conscious mind is being enveloped.

5. How does meaning blindness have an impact on travel?

Seeing without meaning is a difficult concept for people to understand because the sensory organs (eyes) work despite the processing of information being blocked in some way. If someone cannot ‘see’ with associative ‘meaning’ that means that the person needs to bring things to ‘life’ through other means such as touch, texture and odour in my case give me an association, and thus a memory. The problem I have is that I can get lost in colours, shimmer and shine so when moving around my environment I have to use my consciousness to not get ‘lost’ in the sense.

6. Does it have and impact on processing maps?

It does because I cannot transfer the map and internalise them into a meaningful process that relates to what I am reading in the association with were I am going.

7. Does it have an impact on your energy levels?

Of course that has an overall impact on other areas of my functioning such as language processing so I sometimes have to rest between stops if I have enough time.

Peter Dempsey and Anna Kennedy Online are pleased that working in collaboration with 3,500 GWR staff are expanding and improving their knowledge on social requirements for those individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition .


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