'The Good Doctor' inspires dad to lobby for autism symbols on driver's licenses

A New York dad is lobbying for driver’s licenses and state-issued ID cards to start carrying a symbol identifying drivers with autism — an idea he says was inspired by an episode of The Good Doctor.

The ABC medical show, which stars Freddie Highmore as a surgical resident with autism, featured a scene in its Season 3 premiere in which Highmore’s character Shaun struggles on a first date due to a series of unexpected incidents that agitate him. The importance of order and the havoc that unpredictability can wreak on a person with autism got Peter Gagliardo thinking about what someone like his son might do in a tense situation out of the blue — like being pulled over by a police officer while driving.

“It popped into my mind about kids that are on the spectrum,” Gagliardo, a retired firefighter whose 18-year-son Ryan has autism, told WABC. “What happens to my son now that he is driving if he gets pulled over in this instance? What is he going to do if something happens out of the norm?”

Gagliardo’s suggestion: Driver’s licenses and state-issued ID cards that bear symbols notifying officers and officials that someone is on the spectrum. (A mock-up features the puzzle piece logo for the Autism Speaks advocacy organization, but Gagliardo clarified to Yahoo Lifestyle that the design is just a placeholder example of what an autism symbol might involve, and his project currently has no affiliation with the group.)

Peter Gagliardo (right) thinks adding a symbol to driver's licenses could be beneficial to drivers with autism like his son Ryan (left). (Photo: Courtesy of Peter Gagliardo)
Peter Gagliardo (right) thinks adding a symbol to driver's licenses could be beneficial to drivers with autism, like his son Ryan (left). (Photo: Courtesy of Peter Gagliardo)

A 2017 study determined that a third of teens who have autism without an intellectual disability get a driver’s license. But being unexpectedly approached by law enforcement or first responders — whether behind the wheel or not — can feel particularly disruptive to someone with autism, and potentially result in behavior that’s perceived as combative or suspicious. Last year, for example, the family of a teen with autism filed a lawsuit against an Arizona police department over the boy’s 2017 arrest, in which officers reportedly accused him of taking drugs as he used a soothing “stimming” technique to calm himself down.

As both the parent of a child with autism and a career civil servant who still volunteers for the local fire department, Gagliardo sees an autism alert as a way to put safety first and prevent such incidents.

“For parents with kids on the spectrum, it’s something for them to feel a little more comfortable about if something were to happen to them,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that an adult with autism could “opt out” of having the symbol on their ID.

Freddie Highmore plays Shaun, a surgical resident with autism, on The Good Doctor. (Photo: Jeff Weddell via Getty Images)
Freddie Highmore plays Shaun, a surgical resident with autism, on The Good Doctor. (Photo: Jeff Weddell via Getty Images)

Gagliardo’s suggestion could be adopted by New York state. Yonkers State Assemblyman Nader Sayegh, one of the many lawmakers who received a letter from Gagliardo sharing his idea, has introduced a bill promoting the autism symbol on IDs, though it awaits full assembly approval and a Senate co-sponsor and could take months before actually becoming law, according to WABC.

There is a precedent; Texas recently passed Senate Bill 976, also known as the Samuel Allen Law, a reference to the man with Asperger’s syndrome who lobbied for drivers with communication disorders such as deafness, autism and intellectual disabilities the option to indicate it on their vehicle registration. As opposed to a driver’s license symbol, those who choose to participate can disclose their diagnosis with the Department of Motor Vehicles. When an officer runs that person’s plates, they receive a notification that the driver has a disorder and can proceed accordingly.

As with Gagliardo’s suggested IDs, the disclosure is optional. But Gagliardo tells Yahoo that he’s still received pushback from critics who claim that an autism symbol would single them out and stigmatize them. He emphasizes that his idea is “open to discussion.”

In the meantime, he’s making sure that his son Ryan stays safe while on the road, “like any parent would.”

“We’ve got everything set up for him, the registration, the insurance card, just in case,” he says. “I don’t know how he’ll act or how he’ll react in a situation because it hasn’t happened, but it’s just what I thought about, you know — what if?”

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