World Autism Awareness Day

3 years ago Fri 2nd Apr 2021

Accessing public transport when Autistic

At Go-Ahead Ireland we are committed to providing a safe, accessible, friendly, reliable and punctual service for all our customers. We also put a particular emphasis on those who may need additional assistance, for whatever reason.

We are dedicated to providing a service which can be consistently relied upon and promise to offer all reasonable support and assistance to help our customers successfully undertake their journeys.

It is why, on the World Autism Awareness Day, we  team up with ASIAM aiming to understand better Autism, and improve the travel experience for those affected by this condition.

In Ireland, at least 1 in 65 people in our community are autistic. Many more people have autistic traits, but might not have an official diagnosis for a wide variety of reasons. For many autistic people, some experiences can pose particular barriers to going about their daily lives, and can include accessing public transport, like going on the bus.

Getting on the bus is something that we all do at some point. We all use the bus to go on a wide variety of journeys, whether it’s going to school, the daily commute to work, going on holidays or even travelling home to see friends or family. The process of travelling on public transport can be sometimes stressful for everyone, particularly during busy periods, as this can mean having to arrive at a bus stop or station in advance of the next bus, reading the timetable, finding a comfortable seat, not knowing who you’re going to sit beside and waiting at a bus stop or bus station for your bus to arrive. Some of these everyday rituals can pose barriers for autistic people - they might have differences in terms of communication, in staying organised, processing the information they need to get to their destination, or navigating a busy bus station. All these factors can make travelling on the bus more daunting than it would be for a neurotypical person.

Some autistic people might use a Free Travel Pass, and might rely on buses to get around, but might have worries or concerns if they choose to take a different route to the ones they’re familiar with. Therefore, it’s really important for operators like Go-Ahead Ireland, and for the wider public, to not just be aware of the access barriers that many autistic people face when accessing public transport, but also be proactive in removing these access barriers and to make Go-Ahead Ireland and public transport services fully accessible to the 1 in 65 people who comprise the autistic community.    


What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability or difference that a person is born with, which means that the way a person communicates, interacts and understands other people, and the world, is different to people who are not autistic, or neurotypical people. Autistic people’s brains develop and work differently to neurotypical people, and this impacts how autistic people think, perceive, process, understand and interact with the world. Autism is a “spectrum” which means that it impacts different people, in different ways, to differing degrees, at different times and in different contexts and situations. Indeed, we often say in our community that “If you have met one autistic person, then you have met one autistic person ”.

Our understanding of autism, as well as disability more widely, is moving away from the idea that autistic people need to be fixed through treatments or interventions. Instead, we’re moving towards the idea that autism and other disabilities are natural parts of human diversity, and that there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘normal’ type of body or mind. Being autistic is a core and central part to a person’s identity which cannot be separated from their experience of living in a world that’s not built to accommodate their needs. It is a key reason why, when we refer to language around autism, why many in our community prefer ‘autistic person’ over ‘person with autism’.

Structural, environmental and attitudinal barriers often disable autistic people and people with disabilities from fully taking part in society, including accessing public transport, and everybody in society has a part to play to address these barriers so autistic people can fully take part in society. This begins with understanding and accepting autistic people as they are. Recent movements like neurodiversity are beginning to link autism to a wider family of neuro-developmental differences or disabilities which include ADHD, dyslexia, epilepsy and dyspraxia and Tourette’s Syndrome among many others, which are called “Neurotypes”. Autism is one such neurotype, although many autistic people might also have other co-occurring conditions, some of which might also include other neurotypes, which can also have an impact on how a person might access public transport.

No two autistic people experience exactly the same autistic traits or characteristics, but these traits can be summed up under four headings:

  • Sensory Processing
  • Communication
  • Social Imagination
  • Social Interaction

What are some key barriers autistic people face when travelling on public transport?

Sensory processing

Many autistic people process the sensory environment differently to neurotypical people. An autistic person uses their five senses to experience and engage with the world, but these senses can work differently to those of neurotypical people. This might mean that an autistic person might be hypersensitive to some aspects of their environment, and/or hyposensitive to other aspects of their environment. This can make some aspects of taking a bus journey more difficult to navigate for an autistic person. Let’s take a look at some examples why an autistic person experiences some issues taking a bus journey from a sensory perspective;


Some autistic people might be very sensitive to lights, for instance if they encounter a strong bright light on a bus, at a bus stop or bus station, which means that they might need to wear sunglasses or blue light glasses to go on their bus journey. Inversely, other autistic people might find dark tunnels or travelling at night quite disorienting. Some autistic people might express a strong aversion for certain strong colours that might be used in signs, and might become more anxious when they see these colours. An example of this might be associating red with danger.   


Some autistic people might experience certain smells in different ways - some might strongly dislike certain smells, or might be distressed when they encounter them on the bus, or they might have other smells that they find more relaxing. If we take a bus journey, we might have sat next to somebody who might be eating or drinking something very strong. They also might have some issues with some of the products used to clean stations or buses. While this might be awkward or irritating for a neurotypical person, it can be very difficult to deal with, even distressing for an autistic person. On the other hand, some autistic people might have a particular smell that they really enjoy or find relaxing, like perfume or aftershave, and they might decide to bring this with them where they go. 


Many autistic people might have issues with navigating crowded buses or bus stations, which can be quite noisy at the best of times, but particularly so during rush hour or after a big event. Additionally, some autistic people might find some of the noises that a bus might make, like beeping doors, rattling windows, or the sound of the speaker or tannoy, or the horn, overwhelming  They might wear ear defenders, noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs to mitigate the sensory impact of these loud environments and to restore a sense of calm on their journey or commute.


Some autistic people might make noises, have vocal tics or stim by repeating words or phrases from films, TV shows or books that they really enjoy. Whilst some passengers might become irritated by this, it can be a really important way for an autistic person to keep themselves calm or relaxed, particularly if they find any part of their journey stressful or overwhelming.   


Some autistic people might need a lot of personal space to go on their bus journey, and they might find the idea of bumping into people, particularly if the bus is packed, very stressful. This means that they might find navigating bus journeys, particularly during rush hour, more daunting. Some people might also have sensory issues with some of the fabrics used on seats, and this can have a real impact on how they enjoy their bus journey.


Some autistic people might have an issue with a particular taste, or they might have a need for a particular taste that some passengers might find off putting, like a particularly strong food or drink.




Autistic people have different ways that they wish to communicate, and they might have different preferences for communicating with people around them. This can range from people who might use spoken language, and who might be verbose or who can articulate themselves very clearly, to people who might be pre-verbal or non-speaking, to people who might favour different forms of communication, like PECS or sign language, and everything in between. Some people might also have trouble with finding the right word to say in a given situation, whereas others might be very direct in their communication style. This can pose issues when they communicate with staff or other passengers, particularly if it is about something that might be stressful or anxiety-inducing to an autistic person.

Communication is much more than just the words we say or type on a screen. In fact, body language and tone of voice play a much bigger part in how we communicate and how we convey our message. Some autistic people might find it harder to process body language, or facial expressions, as they are often unwritten rules that can be hard to follow. Equally, an autistic person’s body language may not always convey how they might be feeling in a given moment. Some autistic people might need much more time to process information than a neurotypical person, and this might sometimes cause people to feel overwhelmed by what another person might be saying, for instance if they’re asking many questions at once or giving complex instructions. This might be a particular issue in a busy bus route or station where staff might be under pressure and might not be able to devote their full attention to an autistic person’s query.

Also, people might also deal with some autistic people who might understand language very literally, or who might have issues with understanding humour, turns of phrase, sarcasm or figures of speech. This can particularly be the case in Ireland where so much of what we say is not actually what we mean. Communicating clearly and concisely and saying exactly what you mean is the best way of ensuring what you want to say is clearly understood and to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.


Whilst some autistic people who like to keep themselves organised, there are others in our community who might find it more difficult to stay organised, particularly in situations where they might be concentrating on navigating the sensory environment. This might include keeping their ticket, Leap card or travel pass safe, knowing what time they need to arrive at bus station or bus stop to ensure they make their bus on time or picking out which information they need from the app or from timetables to make sure that they’re on the right bus for where they need to go.


Many autistic people, particularly those who experience a great deal of anxiety, might have a routine as a way of providing certainty, so we can anticipate what will happen next and provide a degree of predictability and control to our day. Some people might need to stick to a routine they set for themselves, along with the habits that help them along with their day, as a way of providing structure and control to their day. Because they might rely on their routine to stay calm, any change or disruption to their routine, like a bus being late, traffic congestion or road works, might be particularly distressing for somebody who is autistic. As a community, we might need a greater degree of support in order to adapt to new arrangements, or changes made to the bus route or to the bus timetable.


For many of the reasons outlined above, particularly in terms of differences in communication, sensory processing or social interaction, many autistic people experience anxiety, particularly when it comes to navigating a world that’s not structured to support or include them. This makes sense when you take into account that many autistic people have to constantly manage ourselves and navigate uncertain or unpredictable situations. Moreover, situations that might be second nature to a neurotypical person might be much more stressful for an autistic person. When an autistic person is anxious it often becomes harder to manage other aspects of being autistic. For example, anxiety can play a factor in how an autistic person might navigate the sensory environment, how they communicate or how we deal with different situations. Where possible, providing predictability, reassurance and context, can be a major support for autistic people when we’re making our bus journey.  


Stimming consists of repetitive body movements, sounds or actions which an autistic person may do when they are very excited, happy, stimulated by their environment, anxious or sitting still for long periods of time. Stimming helps an autistic person to regulate themselves and deal with stressful or situations. 

Every autistic person will stim differently. For one person it may be something visible like repeatedly flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, jumping or running around, pacing, while another person’s stims may be repeatedly twisting their hair, rubbing hands or playing with an object like a hairband or elastic band on their wrist or finger. Another person may have vocal tics, make unusual noises or repeat certain words or sentences. Stimming is a positive thing as it helps autistic people to regulate ourselves and manage our sensory needs, particularly in stressful situations. It can provide clues regarding how we’re feeling at that moment, or to communicate what we need during stressful situations. As such, as a community, we shouldn’t be expected to suppress our stims when we travel on the bus.

However, the greatest cause of anxiety or distress from a person stimming may often come from the judgement and attitude of other passengers, and this might often occur when they see people staring or passing comments on what we’re doing when we’re travelling on the bus. There is nothing wrong with stimming, as everyone does it to a certain extent, and autistic people should be allowed to stim without shame, guilt or judgement. However, if you see an autistic person stimming, whom you might believe is anxious or upset, it might be worthwhile to see what can be done to resolve the situation without drawing too much attention to them.


What are some things I can do to accept an autistic person in my life?

Whilst there are some things that a bus service can do to support autistic people, like providing visual aids, easy to understand timetables and instructions, and provide advance notice of any changes or disruptions to the services, there are lots of things you can also do as a passenger to support the autistic community if you see people on the bus, at work, at school, or out in the community:       

 1. Be clear and concise.

Many autistic people interpret and understand language exactly as it is spoken or written down. Try to be clear, concise and direct in what you say. Use your words to convey your message where you can, and don’t rely on facial expression or body language to get your point across. Remind us that if we don’t understand what you mean that it is ok to ask.


2. Be patient with us.

Many autistic people need more time to process conversations, or what’s going on in the world around them. Be sure to not rush or interrupt us. Reassure us that we can take as long as we need to complete what we need to do. If we’re in a conversation, try to only ask one question or give one piece of information at a time where you can. Some autistic people may find it easier to process at their own speed if you write things down, break instructions into steps or use pictures when giving instructions.


3. Reach out to autistic people in your life.

Autistic people, and families, may often find themselves isolated within the community. As we grow up, we might feel anxious or apprehensive about the prospect of joining new clubs, or going to social events. Many autistic people really want to make friends or get involved in the community but may find it harder to get started. Reach out to people in your community who may be isolated or lonely. Extend invitations even when they cannot be, or are not, taken up, particularly if it’s something you think they might be interested in. Knowing someone cares and values you for who you are makes a major difference for everybody.

4. Be aware of the sensory environment.

We live in a noisy, busy, colourful, fragrant and tactile world, that is often filled with lots of sensations and where there are many things going on at once. An autistic person might experience the sensory environment differently or more intensely than somebody who isn’t autistic. Try to be conscious of the sensory environment when interacting with others, particularly if you know that they might have particular sensory needs as an autistic person. Try to ensure that there is one activity happening going on at any one time. This helps an autistic to adapt the environment to our needs.

5. Fill in the gaps.

For many autistic people it may be difficult to know what to expect in everyday social situations. Don’t assume that things which might be obvious to you are obvious to other people, particularly if they find it harder to read between the lines of a given situation. Give us as much information as you can in advance, explain as you go and let us know in advance of any changes in plans as early as possible so we can prepare for this.

6. Be understanding and accepting of us.

Autistic people may communicate differently to other people. They may have different ways of managing the world around them or dealing with stressful situations than you might expect. This might mean, for example, that we find it easier to communicate to you without making eye contact or it may mean we have to do things in a certain way. Never stare, never judge, and never mock what we might say or do in a given situation.

7. Watch your language.

Be conscious that you never use terms which portray autism or disability in a negative or ableist light, which might stigmatise autism and disability when we’re out in the community. Try to follow the community’s lead when using words we use to identify ourselves and ask the autistic person how they might wish to refer to themselves.

8. Challenge stigma, bullying and discrimination.

Autistic people can often be afraid to share our experiences, ask for help or even mention that we are autistic for fear of being treated differently or stereotyped. Don’t be a bystander – always challenge those who stigmatise or bully us, or who seek to actively discriminate against us.

9. Listen and learn about us.

No one can teach you more about what it means to be autistic, than autistic people themselves. Autistic people are talented, diverse, creative and have a wide array of experiences to bring to our communities. This World Autism Month, actively try to listen to the autistic people people in your community and learn from our experiences to build a more inclusive world for us.

10. See our interests, talents and abilities.

Autistic people often communicate, think and experience the world differently. That does not mean that we are any less talented, educated or engaged. Focus on our personal strengths, interests and skills and use them to start a conversation or create an opportunity to include us.

Show your support by making small changes today - tell us your pledge using #AutismMonthSayYes and donate at