Enjoy Your Ride!’: Kids With Autism Have a Message for Transit Riders

Children who participated in recording service announcements for the M.T.A. gather at the Foundry Learning Center in Manhattan on Monday.Credit…Kholood Eid for The New York Times

Transit agencies across the country are broadcasting public service announcements recorded by children with autism for Autism Awareness Month.

When Ellison Chang, 7, recently recorded a public service message asking New York City subway riders not to hold the train doors open, he added his own personal greeting at the beginning: “What’s up, chicken wing!”

The reason for the poultry-themed salutation? “That past week, we may or may not have had chicken wings,” he explained in an interview.

Benjamin Ruiz, 6, was given a template for his public service announcement urging New York commuters to, please, not litter and to keep their hands and feet inside the train at all times. But he rewrote the script to make it his own. The final version, which he recorded a couple of hours after his bedtime on his mother’s phone, included a cheery sign-off.

“Remember to be kind and have a happy New York City day,” Benjamin says. “Bye! Have a good day!”

Benjamin and Ellison were two of the approximately 100 boys and girls with autism who recorded public service announcements for the transit systems in New York, New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., for April, Autism Awareness Month.

Although not every child’s recording made the final cut, the project has aimed to broaden acceptance of children with autism and to give them a chance to have their voices broadcast at train stations, which many of them adore.

Many children with autism focus intensely on the technical aspects of trains and buses, subway maps and train schedules, said Jonathan Trichter, a co-founder of the Foundry Learning Center — a school for children with developmental disabilities in Manhattan — and the driving force behind the public service announcements.

Children with autism also latch onto phrases they hear in spaces where they are intensely focused and use them as some of their first means of communication, Mr. Trichter said.

“As a result, it is not unusual for a child in New York City who is on the spectrum to have, as his or her first full sentence, something like ‘Stand clear of the closing doors, please,’” Mr. Trichter said, reciting the familiar warning that plays throughout the city’s subway system. That phenomenon, he said, gave him the idea to pitch the children’s announcements to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, which was the first agency to broadcast them last April.

Mr. Trichter said he spread the word about the project on Facebook and accepted any recordings that were sent to him. It was then up to transit agencies to decide which ones they wanted to use.

Transit officials said they were glad to support the project.

“We know that children on the spectrum are some of our biggest fans,” said James Allison, a spokesman for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which has played the children’s announcements at all 50 stations this month. “It seemed like a natural thing, and what a great way to give them a thrill.”

The announcements were not only gratifying for children and their families, they were also a morale boost for transit agencies, which are often the target of complaints, said Kevin S. Corbett, the president and chief executive of New Jersey Transit. Riders have noticed, he said.

“This sort of throws people off their regular routine and catches their attention,” Mr. Corbett said. “It’s definitely gotten a really happy feel for a lot of people, much more than any of us would have expected.”

For Brenna Calles of New York, it was special to watch her son, Morgan, 6, write his own announcement. Morgan, who could not make eye contact or speak when he was younger, read and recorded the statement “over and over again until he got it the way he wanted it.”

Recently, Ms. Calles took Morgan to the East 180th Street station in the Bronx, where they waited for an hour to hear his message. The announcements are playing in 15-minute intervals at 11 major stations in New York, according to the M.T.A.

“Hello, passengers,” Morgan says in his announcement. “My name is Morgan Calles, and I am 6 years old. I love trains and buses. Today, the M.T.A. is letting me share an important announcement: If you see someone at risk of falling onto the tracks, please get help immediately. Tell a police officer or an M.T.A. employee. Be safe and happy Autism Awareness Month.”

Morgan called it “super duper duper duper duper exciting.”

Ms. Calles was also moved.

“It’s very special to me because, so many times, kids on the spectrum don’t have a voice and we, as parents, end up being their voice,” she said. “They don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

The children’s recordings, Ms. Calles said, show there “are so many different types of people on the spectrum, and they’re all different.”

Lisa Stephens, who lives in Atlanta, said her son, Immanuel, 7, recorded his announcement for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority 12 or 13 times before declaring: “OK, Mom. This is the one we’re going to send.”

Immanuel’s singsong voice, urging riders not to litter and telling them, “Hope you enjoy your ride!” reflects his personality, Ms. Stephens said.

“I am so proud of him to the point of almost tears,” she said. “He’s naturally friendly and outgoing, and it’s just amazing to see his growth and potential.”

On Monday, Immanuel and his family rode the Red Line to Airport Station to watch planes take off and land and to hear the announcements he and other children had recorded play over the public address system.

“It was great,” Immanuel said in an interview. “It felt like something in my heart, saying: ‘That’s you, Immanuel. You are so awesome.’ And the other kids, we were cheering them on.”

By Michael Levenson,
The New York Times | April 26, 2023

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