New program teaches commuters with ASD public transportation

A program teaches people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to use public transportation.


Reading street signs, crossing roadways and basic street safety are all potential challenges, Elizabeth Pfeiffer found among patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“[Patients] were having trouble with basic adult roles and they didn’t have much support,” Pfeiffer said. “Transportation for these patients is one of the biggest barriers.”

Pfeiffer, an associate professor in the rehabilitation health and sciences department, had switched her research focus from pediatrics to developmental disability when she realized the age group 18 and oler was having difficulty with basic tasks, like getting around on their own. 

Pfeiffer’s answer to the transportation struggle was to develop a transportation peer-support program, in collaboration with SEPTA and the Philadelphia Independence Network. The program follows a peer-to-peer learning model that connects those who have ASD to mentor program participants to learn public transportation safety and commuting. Program mentors with ASD are trained by Temple staff on how to effectively teach the curriculum. 

Peer support interventionists are hired as Temple University staff and go through training in order to learn transportation safety. 

Pfeiffer saw commuting to be the main issue and looked into addressing this problem but couldn’t find any studies related to the subject. 

“There were not a lot of transportation-providing curriculums that focus on the ASD population,” she said.

 During the first two weeks of the program, participants learn about street safety, street signs and other basic fundamentals of travel. After that follows peer intervention, which is about 10 to 12 sessions of one-on-one traveling on public transportation based on participant’s goals.

Pfeiffer and the research team GPS track the participants by their SEPTA cards and cell phones. 

The tracking allows the research team to see if they are moving around more, which helps to test the effectiveness of the program, according to Amber Davidson, a research specialist with Pfeiffer.

She added the curriculum that they have developed is specific to the Philadelphia area and to participants with ASD. 

Patients for the program need to be at least 18 years old and do not need to be affiliated with Temple. As long as they are from Philadelphia or in regions that SEPTA runs, they can participate, Pfeiffer said.

Participant identities are kept confidential due to their involvement in the program.

The project initially started Oct. 2018, after receiving funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. 

“We were very excited when we got the grants because it gave us the chance to get to work on the participation study and inclusion relating transportation,” Pfeiffer said. 

Amy Raphael and Catherine Fleming both work as occupational therapists at SEPTA and have been involved with the project since its beginning.  

Fleming said that SEPTA provides free monthly passes to those who participate in the program. The passes are available for all SEPTA transportation platforms and can be used during regular transit hours. 

Fleming said she believes that the independence factor the program creates is one of the most beneficial opportunities for those with ASD. 

She said that her favorite part is seeing participants gain independence, like being able to take train lines they couldn’t before.

“Now they can go to their job or hang out with their friends without depending on their parents,” she added.

Raphael said she also enjoyed seeing the participants’ excitement. 

“Some of them haven’t been exposed to something like this before,” she added.

Davidson said the one-on-one sessions are the reason why the program is both special and successful. 

“It is such a unique learning participating environment where you can help both sides gain important skills.” she added.

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