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Dunn bill to allow people with autism to note it on their driver’s license approved by legislature

“Leaders in law enforcement have responded enthusiastically to this legislation because it reinforces their efforts to better understand the limitations of certain drivers with disabilities before emergencies arise,” Dunn said.



A bill that would allow a New Jersey driver to have a notation on their license that they’ve been diagnosed with autism unanimously passed the state Assembly on Thursday and now goes to Gov. Phil Murphy for a final decision.


The Assembly voted 71-0 to pass the measure, which was previously passed the state Senate.


Autism advocates said the legislation is needed to avoid complications and misunderstandings when a driver with autism is stopped by police.


“We support it whole heartily,” Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, Autism NJ executive director, said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “Anytime there is interaction with law enforcement, first impressions are critical.”


Sometimes individuals with autism might not make appropriate eye contact, they may speak to quickly or too slowly, and they might engage in unusual behavior, she said.

“A law enforcement officer has to determine very quickly if someone’s behavior is suspicious and make a quick determination about the levels of risk,” Buchanan said. “The sooner they know someone has a disability, the more quickly the officer can have the right approach.”


Under the legislation, a driver, or their parent or guardian, can request that the diagnosis is noted on a license under the restrictions column. Police departments in the state would be provided with written guidance about effectively communicating with a person who has autism or another communication disorder.

“Interactions with police officers are stressful for drivers who don’t struggle with communication issues. For those who have autism or disorders involving speech or language, it can be dangerous, because they may not respond appropriately,” said state Assemblywoman Aura K. Dunn, R-Morris, one of the bills’ prime sponsors.

“A designation of such a diagnosis on a driver’s license would help law enforcement recognize when a person may have trouble communicating and also reduce some anxieties for those drivers and their families,” Dun said in a statement.

Sometimes a driver with autism can misunderstand an officer’s direction during a traffic stop.


Buchanan described a traffic stop involving a young autistic man who, after giving his license and other credentials to a police officer, said he couldn’t comply with the officer’s directions to pull into a nearby parking lot because his literal interpretation of the situation was the officer had his license and he couldn’t drive without it.

“He thought the correct answer was to say, ‘No I can’t drive because I don’t have my license on me,’” Buchanan said. “It took few minutes of conversation. It resolved successfully, but it gives you pause.”


The bill also has an educational component to train police officers and develop communication guidance to be developed by the State Police, Human Services Department and an autism advocacy organization.


“When law enforcement participates in autism training, they learn about the symptoms, the behaviors and how an individual can present,” Buchanan said. “They have a better idea of what to expect when they meet someone with autism.”


The state Motor Vehicle Commission and Human Services Department will be required to establish a process and documentation required for the license designation.


“Leaders in law enforcement have responded enthusiastically to this legislation because it reinforces their efforts to better understand the limitations of certain drivers with disabilities before emergencies arise,” Dunn said.


A larger effort is underway to comply with a 2020 state attorney general’s mental health directive. Autism NJ part of a mental health steering committee, working with the attorney general and county prosecutor’s offices that has surveyed local police departments about their mental health training, the need for training and resources to get or fund that training.


“We’re meeting next week to see the responses and get an understanding of the landscape and identify the best practices, so we can increase them,” Buchanan said.

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