Unlocking Public Transport for Individuals with Autism: Challenges and Solutions

Have you ever paused to imagine what it might feel like to be in a bustling room, surrounded by loud noises and overwhelming stimuli, where everything seems out of control? For individuals with autism, this scenario isn't just a fleeting discomfort but a daily reality, particularly in public spaces, where the chaos of India's urban landscapes adds another layer of uncertainty.

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Everyone might have heard of Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), but let us understand the term better. ASD, as defined by World Health Organisation (WHO) are a diverse group of conditions and are characterised by some degree of difficulty in social interactions and communication. Other characteristics are atypical patterns of activities and behaviours, such as difficulty with transition from one activity to another, a focus on details and unusual reactions to sensations. 1

The Growing Prevalence

Autism is the third most common developmental disorder in the world. 2 Over the years the people diagnosed with ASD has also increased exponentially. This could be attributed to factors such as lifestyle changes, genetic predispositions, environmental factors, and improved diagnosis.

A study published in the Indian Journal of Paediatrics, 2021 highlighted that around 1 in 68 children have autism in India 3 which is more than the world average of 1 in 100 children as per WHO. Autism influences the ability of the individual to engage in routine activities requiring social interactions, emphasizing the lifelong nature of the condition and the need for support and accommodations.

Moreover, people with ASD often face significant challenges in navigating the world around them. Social interactions can be overwhelming and they might find it hard to express their needs and emotions, leading to frustration and misunderstandings. As such, it is important that we create public transport systems curated or sensitive to the needs of people with ASD.

What it means to create public transport for autistic individuals

Public transport systems in any country or context offers a variety of benefits to its users, including its cost efficiency in commuting long distances. However, using public transport is a challenging affair for most of us, and for the same reasons people with ASD find it nearly impossible to use. For instance, stepping into a crowded bus stops in Mumbai or a bustling metro station in Delhi might be an unimaginable task for an autistic person.

 a. What does the research say?

A study conducted with 703 Autistic adults in New Jersey, found that 61.7% of the respondents have never used any form of public transit and are mostly dependant on family or friends to drive them. The study also highlighted that the 50% of the respondents find it difficult to plan a trip in the public transportation due to non-availability or difficulty getting to the bus or train stations. Around 43% of the respondents are concerned about unanticipated interactions with service providers and fellow passengers. 4

Studies highlight the safety concerns and spatial awareness challenges faced by individuals with ASD in using public transport. Creating predictability, limiting stimuli, and fostering open communication systems are identified as crucial strategies to facilitate their use of public transport effectively. 5

b. Understanding Public Transport challenges in India from the lens of Autism

As discussed earlier public transportation is a lifeline for many, this even more applicable in India. Though there is a lack of data and research on individuals with autism and their usage of public transport in India, global understanding of these challenges is quite appropriate in the Indian context as well. Some of the challenges are explained below:

  • Overcrowded buses, trains, and metros: In India buses are the preferred mode of transport as it is cheap, reliable (to an extent), and is available in almost every city. For the same reasons they are also often extremely crowded. Similarly in metropolitan cities i.e., Delhi, metro rail is equally crowded and bustling with people at all hours of the day. The prevalence of large crowds often necessitates various levels of social engagement, which can be overwhelming for individuals with autism, who may struggle to navigate these interactions effectively.
  • Lack of travel and road etiquettes: The noises from passengers conversing and the incessant honking of horns on the road contribute to heightened anxiety and discomfort. The combination of bright lights and loud sounds make it challenging for individuals with autism to cope with the sensory stimuli present in public transport settings.
  • Unpredictability in schedule and availability: The unpredictability of schedules and availability adds another layer of complexity. Unlike metro-rail systems that provide precise schedules for arrivals and departures, other forms of public transportation lack such predictability.

Unlocking the potential of public transport for a better quality of life of for people with ASD

Some of the initiatives that can improve the accessibility of public transport for individuals with ASD are as follows:

  • Technological Advancement: There is a positive relationship between improved technological interventions and usage of public services by all individuals. Mobile apps that show transport availability, schedules, real-time location tracking and seat availability to avoid over-crowded buses can assist people with ASD while using public transport.
  • Quite coaches and visual aids: It is also important to reduce the sensory load and provide clear information. This could be done through coping mechanisms such as noise cancelling audio systems. There could also be specific seating in quiet coaches for individual with ASD with reduced lighting, less visual stimulus, clear signages for ease of commute.
  • Travel Training: Providing travel training to individual with autism through experts and officials can also help them navigate the public transport with a little more confidence. This can help them effectively communicate their needs, manage their emotions, follow rules and cope with noise, smells, and other sensory experiences. 6
  • Behavioural Change: More than anything it is of utmost importance that we reduce the stigma related to autism to create a safer environment. This could be done through campaigns by transport departments, signages, and training programs for service providers.
  • Accessibility Features: Public transport systems around the world are increasingly incorporating accessibility features such as tactile paving, which helps individuals with visual impairments navigate stations and platforms, and audio announcements, which provide important information to passengers with hearing impairments. These features benefit individuals with ASD as well, making travel easier and more accessible for them.


As India continues to urbanize, it is essential to consider the needs of individuals with ASD in urban planning and development. Creating inclusive and accessible environments can improve the quality of life for those with ASD and their families. To create the foundations of an inclusive cities we will need concerted effort from policymakers, urban planners, and community stakeholders.

We must take cognisance that fostering inclusivity in public spaces and by extension in the transport systems is not just a matter of convenience but a fundamental right for individuals with autism. Recognising that the needs of all individuals are human needs and not special needs will serve as a great starting point. Increased awareness, acceptance, and support are crucial in ensuring that individuals with ASD can thrive in urban environments. about-3rd-most-common-developmental-disorder-know-the-basics-of-parenting-children-with-asd/articleshow/99182225.cms?from=mdr

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Published on 
Tuesday, 2 April 2024

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