Iowa should offer license designation to autistic drivers

A legislative proposal will soon land on Gov. Kim Reynold’s desk that could result in added protections for drivers with autism. Because Tanager Place believes all people deserve an opportunity to live their fullest life, we urge the Governor to enact these protections.

Research confirms many autistic people without an intellectual disability will earn their driver’s license, but may require additional time to process what is happening if they are pulled over by law enforcement. They may avoid eye contact, become anxious, have difficulty communicating or display other behaviors that an officer may interpret as an unwillingness to cooperate or a guilty conscience.

That’s exactly what happened to 27-year-old Tyler Leech of Des Moines. He was leaving a bowling night with his church group in West Des Moines when he was pulled over by a police officer for a faulty tail light. When Leech didn’t respond to the officer’s questions, he was removed from his vehicle, handcuffed and pat-down. Although Leech’s detainment was short-lived – he was allowed to continue home when a personal and vehicle search produced no illicit substances – he felt traumatized by the incident.

His mother shared her fears with news reporters, noting that she worried what could have happened if her son had become frightened by the encounter and tried to run away or if he had resisted being handcuffed.

When the Iowa Legislative Session began in January, Leech spoke with lawmakers about his experience and found a champion in Des Moines Democrat Tony Bisignano. This month, other lawmakers heard Leech’s story as Bisignano pushed for Iowa driver’s licenses and non-operator’s identification to have a voluntary autism designation that would better inform law enforcement officers why a person might exhibit odd behavior.

Ryan Republican Dan Zumbach, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, also took Leech’s message to heart, helping Bisignano add and pass an amendment to a farm vehicle bill. The Iowa House has approved the change, and the measure moves to Gov. Reynolds’ desk.

We urge her to give people with autism this choice and provide law enforcement better insight by signing the bill into law.

While this proposal does not include additional mental health training for law enforcement officers, we hope the legislature and executive branch understand how additional mental health training can make our men and women in blue all the more effective in their duty to serve and protect.

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