For people with autism, ICBC’s testing system is inequitable

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      By Radha Agarwal and Harvin Bhathal

      Caitlyn Peterson has taken the ICBC driving knowledge test eight times over the past four years, and has failed every time.

      Peterson has autism, which means she requires enhanced and equitable support in order to operate and excel in stimulating situations. According to the 29-year-old, what ICBC currently offers autistic people hoping to get licensed is inadequate.

      “The lights are so bright, people’s cell phones are going off, lights are flashing,” she says of the test-taking environment. “People’s kids, they’re all screaming. There are noises all around you constantly, which is very distracting.”

      One form of existing support—only available at certain ICBC locations—is a scribe: someone who sits with the person taking the test and helps them go through the questions. It’s a start, but it’s not perfect: on Halloween earlier this year, Peterson took the driving knowledge test with a scribe; as she was going through the questions, another ICBC worker decided to pull a prank on the scribe, coming up behind them and scaring them. It startled Peterson, throwing off her concentration and resulting in another failed test.

      According to AutismBC, approximately 100,000 adults in the province meet the criteria for autism. Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability in the brain that can cause people to have difficulty in social situations and standard educational environments. They are often very smart, but the ways they interact with others and with their own emotions requires unique forms of care.

      Ananya Chawla, a behavioural intervention therapist in BC, says driving independence is very important for people on the spectrum.

      “Using public transport exposes people with autism to unwanted, fast-paced social interactions that they are not equipped for,” she explains, adding that not being able to drive results in additional stressors on both autistic people and their families.

      “I want to get my license because I want to be independent,” says Peterson, who coaches a kids’ soccer team in Chiliwack. “I don’t want everybody to drive me around and take their time out of their day.”

      There is no one-size-fits-all approach to care for people on the spectrum, but Chawla suggests a few changes to the existing ICBC testing environment that could make a big difference.

      “An ideal test environment is airy, with large windows and a de-stressful surrounding,” Chawla shares, “as people with autism are likely to suffer exasperation when overwhelmed by their feelings.”

      Peterson says that ICBC should offer a private testing room with dimmed lighting.

      “When there are noises going around,” she explains, “you just get very irritated easily.” She also believes that additional allotted time for completing the test would be of great help.

      In a statement, ICBC mentions a few options that are already available for people on the spectrum: “If a customer who will be taking the knowledge test is sensitive to sound, we can book their appointment at a quieter time of day in the office,” writes ICBC media relations advisor Lindsay Wilkins, “and provide headphones to help reduce noise.”

      Peterson says she has never been offered headphones at the two locations (Chilliwack and Abbotsford) where she has taken the test. And while she has been able to book an appointment at a supposed quieter time of the day, she says that it’s just not enough for people like her to thrive.

      Driving schools in BC must be registered with ICBC, which Chawla says presents another area of improvement: when it comes time for people on the spectrum to get behind the wheel, behaviour consultants can be key in their learning success.

      “Such people largely benefit from behaviour consulting when learning a new motor skill like driving,” she says, “because they assume and assimilate knowledge differently than typically developing individuals.”

      Behaviour consultants can help address challenging behaviours and teach adaptive skills to people on the spectrum.

      “They can efficiently learn fine motor and gross motor skills if behaviour consultancy is included,” Chawla explains. “Teachers are able to teach with patience, consistency, and an understanding of their particular communication.”

      She emphasizes that people with autism are fast learners—they just need to be communicated with in language and actions that they relate to.

      Radha Agarwal and Harvin Bhathal are journalists in Vancouver.