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Introducing Subway Travel and Building Life Skills for Young People on the Autism Spectrum at the New York Transit Museum

on Thu, 12/20/2012 - 1:06pm

By Sarah Crean, blogger for the Museum Access Consortium

With support from funds raised by the Museum Access Consortium for the FAR Fund, the New York Transit Museum is piloting an introductory program about riding the subway for children on the autism spectrum in grades 6 through 8. The program is a collaboration between the Transit Museum, the Museum Access Consortium, and District 75's Office of Travel Training at the New York City Department of Education. The objective of the New York Transit Museum's Pre-Travel Training Program is to provide students with a safe environment to gain exposure to and practice the necessary life skills to travel in the New York City subways. Using role playing and other activities, students increase safety awareness and learn proper behaviors and social skills so they will be able to follow the steps for safe travel. The Museum Access Consortium is documenting the New York Transit Museum's implementation of this program to share with professionals at other cultural institutions and encourage more welcoming museum experiences for visitors on the autism spectrum and their families.

District 75’s Office of Travel Training (OTT) has been a fundamental partner for the Transit Museum in the development and implementation of this program that provides an introduction to travel skills on the subway. The Office of Travel Training offers an intensive and comprehensive training program in mass transit (subway and bus) and travel for high school students with disabilities, including young people along the autism spectrum. The Office of Travel Training works with alternative-degree students – students who will stay in school until the age of 21 and then graduate with an equivalency degree. Their goal is to help the students they work with to lead independent lives, if possible – which includes securing a job and being able to travel to-and-from that job independently. Beginning this process at the Transit Museum allows students to practice necessary travel skills in a safe subway station environment, where they can swipe MetroCards as many times as they need to without losing money, and where doors won’t close and trains won’t move.

The New York Transit Museum, in partnership with the Office Travel Training, had successfully offered an introductory "Pre-Travel Training" program for high school students on the spectrum for several years. The program for high school students began as a two-part museum visit. Through this experience, staff members from both institutions felt there was a need to extend an adapted version of the program to middle school classes to encourage students at earlier ages, along with their teachers and parents, to move in the direction of enrolling in the Office of Travel Training program once they're in high school. Thanks to support from a three-year grant raised by the Museum Access Consortium from the Far Fund to improve accessibility for people with autism at cultural institutions, the Transit Museum piloted their "Pre-Travel Training" program for several middle school classes during the 2011-2012 school year, with even more classes signed up for the 2012-2013 schoolyear.

Every middle school class that participates in the Transit Museum’s Pre-Travel Training program comes to the Museum for two visits and then a final visit is organized on Saturdays so that parents can attend with their children. The first and second visits are one-hour long and take place entirely within the Museum, an operational subway station built in 1936. During these first couple of visits, middle school classes learn the various steps involved in taking the subway and practice their skills inside the Museum, from finding their station to swiping their Metrocards, interacting with the conductor to role-playing situations that can occur on the subway. The third visit takes place on a Saturday morning so that parents can participate with their middle school students to see what their children have learned. After practicing together in the Museum, the third visit involves everyone going together into the New York City subway system for practice rides. All three visits are

entirely free for students and their parents, thanks to the Far Fund.

Observing a Museum visit

We stopped in this spring for a visit from public school 53K to the Transit Museum. Many of the skills that are a focus of the Transit Museum’s program –assessing whether one is heading in the right direction; purchasing tickets from an agent; negotiating with passengers as one enters crowded stations and trains; and practicing safe and appropriate behavior in unpredictable and chaotic situations- are all highly relevant to other aspects of life. Transit Museum staff broke down negotiating the mass transit system into a series of manageable steps, using role playing, visual tools and repetition to communicate key concepts.

Understanding Your Route

At the start of their visit, the P53K 7th and 8th graders gathered in front of a large subway map. After a brief introduction to the program, museum educator Alex Tronolone explained that students would be taking a “pretend” trip from the Transit Museum to Times Square. The group also included teachers and aides from P53K, along with Jean Louis Phillipe of the Office of Travel Training. Using a photo book to indicate key concepts and moments of transition, the students were shown an image stating: FIND YOUR STATION. Then the students were shown the phrase “You are Here”, and asked to find this exact phrase on the subway map. Finally, students were shown a page stating: KNOW YOUR ROUTE. Alex and the students discussed how each station has a map and the importance of always making sure they are in the right place, moving in the correct direction.

Ticket Purchase

The students then moved on to a ticket booth where they waited in line to purchase a Metro Card. Each student acted out purchasing a Metro Card from a “station agent” portrayed by Museum staff. Students were required to ask for their Metro Cards politely, using please and thank you. In cases where students were non-verbal, Museum staff asked them yes and no questions so they were able to gesture what they needed.

Entering the Subway System

Students were instructed how to properly swipe their Metro Cards before entering a turnstile. photo book pages indicating SWIPE YOUR METROCARD and WALK THROUGH THE TURNSTILES were shown at this time. All of the students practiced walking through the turnstile several times. Staff and teachers attempted to enter the same turnstiles in the opposite direction in order to demonstrate the various situations students might encounter while entering a busy subway station. Students were reminded that if they swiped their card, they must enter or they would lose their money, not to swipe cards more than once, and to always use their manners, even if individuals they encounter are not behaving properly.

Waiting for and Riding Trains Safely

After completing this exercise, the students headed downstairs for lessons on safely entering, exiting and riding subway trains. Instruction took place in the Museum’s vintage subway cars, which sit on live electric tracks. Students were periodically reminded to look for either a police officer or a station agent (“someone in a uniform”) if they dropped something on the tracks or needed assistance in any way.

Once they arrived on the platform, students were shown a page from the photo book stating, WAIT FOR THE TRAIN. Alex discussed platform safety, including where and how to wait. Students were reminded to stand behind yellow safety lines on platforms. Identifying the correct train will be covered in the group’s second visit, when students ride trains within the actual subway system. After viewing a LET OTHERS OFF THE TRAIN FIRST page from the photo book, students practiced Entering and Exiting train etiquette. Like typical passengers, museum staff stood in the train doorway which required students to say, “Excuse me” in order to enter the car. Every student was blocked and only allowed entry if they communicated with the person in the doorway.

Prior to arriving at a subway car, a Yellow Tactile Strip was placed in front of the first door. These yellow tactile strips have been added to most subway stations in the system. These strips are to help all passengers know where to safely wait on the platform – indicating that passengers should stand back from the yellow strip. Since our subway station museum doesn’t have yellow tactile strips in place, we bring out this “mat” to convey the idea – and important aspect in knowing where to safely stand and wait.

Students were asked to find a seat once they entered the car. They were required to maneuver around teachers who had already taken up seats, or who had placed their bags on the seat next to them. This encouraged the students to ask politely if they could sit down. The students were shown STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS and SIT OR HOLD ONTO HAND HOLDS images from the photo book to reinforce proper etiquette and safety practices while riding on trains. Alex and the students reviewed appropriate behavior for a variety of typical subway situations:

  • What to do if there are no seats left
  • Where to put one’s backpack
  • Awareness of boundaries while sitting/standing
  • Falling asleep on the train: missing a stop or theft of belongings
  • Staring at others or looking at books, ipods, games etc of someone sitting next to them
  • Talking to strangers
  • Eating on the train
  • Asking the conductor for help

As the students were “riding” to their destination, a Museum staff person outside the car held up station signs indicating various stops on the way to Times Square. Alex and the students discussed the importance of remaining alert in order to identify the stop immediately before the one where they would get off. Alex showed a READ STATION SIGNS image, and asked students to identify each station they passed “on the way” to Times Square.

After arriving at Times Square, the students practiced getting off the train, once again having to negotiate a situation in which two staff members were standing in the subway car’s doorway. Again, staff members blocked the door until each student said, ”excuse me”. Some students hesitated as they left their seats and prepared to leave the train. Alex pointed out that trains enter and exit stations rapidly, and reminded students about strategies that can be used in order not to miss stops.

At the close of the program, students took seats in another subway car for a review of what they had learned that day. Each student received a TRUE card and a FALSE card to respond to various questions related to subway safety and ridership etiquette. The cards ensured that non-verbal students could participate fully in the exercise. Students in the group had varying levels of functionality, but they actively participated in and responded to each stage of the program. All of the students were able to demonstrate an understanding of lessons learned, and they clearly enjoyed being in a fun and interesting environment.

The Third Visit: Riding the subway and learning together

About a week and a half after their classroom visits, seven students and eight parents from public schools P53K and P77K returned to the Transit Museum for the third session of their Pre-Travel Training program. After a brief orientation at the Museum for students and parents, the students joined museum educator Alex Tronolone for a visit to the Museum’s subway platform and train cars and a recap of the lessons they had learned in their first visit. Parents remained with Lynette Morse, Transit Museum educator, and Jean Louis Phillipe and Peggy Groce of the Office of Travel Training.

Phillipe provided more information about the Department of Education’s Travel Training Program, which is a year-long course offered to autistic public high school students. He is one of nine travel trainers working directly for the Office of Travel Training. The DOE’s program is comprehensive, covering the entire mass transit system; the subway system, city buses, etc. The goal of the program is travel independence for high school students who are about to become young adults. Students who complete the DOE program successfully are able to travel safely from home to a job or other activity and home again. Phillipe pointed out that the key purpose of the Transit Museum’s pilot program is to introduce the concepts that are covered and expanded upon in the DOE’s program. He reminded parents that students need to sign up for the DOE Travel Training Program two years before their scheduled high school graduation.

Parents and educators were able to have a frank conversation about the challenges and risks related to introducing autistic children to the New York City mass transit system. One father, concerned as to whether subway personnel had received training regarding the needs of autistic children, asked, “Does the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) know about our kids?” Another parent added, “my biggest fear is ignorant people. I have confidence in my daughter but what about other people?” Phillipe explained to parents that MTA employees receive a significant amount of sensitivity training, and that subway staff does have an awareness of differently-abled passengers. He also urged parents to make sure that their children secure colored identification cards, that can be kept with them in a pocket or wallet while riding on subways and buses, and which help MTA personnel provide assistance if needed.

Peggy Groce, a parent and long-time director of the Office of Travel Training, reminded parents that subway riders are not necessarily indifferent to the needs of autistic children, but most passengers are distracted and not aware of everything that is happening around them. She urged parents to consider as well that there are many helpful people in the world, including within the subway system. “All of our kids have the same needs- but we have different ways of going about meeting our needs. I understand your fears but don’t pass them on to your kids. Have some trust in yourselves (and other people).”

Parents and students then reconvened to leave the Transit Museum for some practice rides within the subway system, accompanied by Museum educators. The educators encouraged parents to stand back and let their children negotiate the trip as independently as possible, which they did, except in a couple of cases where the students appeared to need close supervision. Before leaving the Museum, one of the students kicked his shoe onto the Museum’s subway tracks, which have an electrified third rail. The shoe was retrieved successfully by Museum staff but the incident underscored the importance of educating students about safe behavior.

Students and parents entered a station in downtown Brooklyn which is quite busy, even on weekends. Entering the station and moving through it gave the students more exposure to noisy and hectic conditions. Now that they were riding trains in the actual subway system, the students were able to draw upon their role plays and other exercises at the Transit Museum. The students lined up at a token booth to request single-ride Metrocards, which they successfully swiped through the station’s turnstiles (Training in how to purchase Metrocards is done with older students in the DOE’s Travel Training Program). With Phillipe and Alex’ assistance, the students located the correct stairwell and then the correct platform where they would wait for their train. Phillipe and Alex pointed out the letters and numbers identifying different subway lines so that the students could begin to develop a sense of what to look for. When the group reached the correct subway platform, Phillipe and Alex also reiterated key safety considerations to employ when waiting for trains, such as staying behind yellow lines and looking for the sign that indicates where to wait for the conductor’s car. Students and teachers also noted new digital platform signs that indicate when the next train will arrive.

The students successfully entered and exited two different subway trains, riding a few stops further into Brooklyn, and then returning to the station where they began their trip. They practiced moving around other people, saying “excuse me” when needed, locating seats, standing when necessary, and maintaining appropriate subway decorum. Perhaps one of the most important skills they were able to practice was alertness and awareness of their surroundings. They needed to remain focused on where they were and where they were going, using tools such as station signs and simple notecards that stated their origin and destination. With the help of their teachers, and with their parents close by, they began to practice the skills necessary to safely maneuver in a system that transports hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Parents respond to the experience

After exiting the subway station, teachers, parents and students returned to the Transit Museum. Parents were asked to complete a program evaluation form, and families were invited to remain for the day as guests of the Museum. Parents were also invited to submit their email addresses so they could receive photos from the Pre-Travel Training program and information about programs for autistic children at other museums. Discussions with parents indicated great enthusiasm for the Pre-Travel Training program and pride in their children’s accomplishments. A number of parents discussed their concerns for the safety of their children as they learned to use the subway, but also an incredibly strong desire to see their children become more independent. Parents offered program suggestions such as a more in-depth Pre-Travel Training program on multiple Saturdays; inclusion of travel training and mass transit skills in the public school curriculum for children along the autism spectrum; and inclusion of images of the new digital station lists on trains and new train arriving signs in the photo book used to give students visual prompts throughout the program.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Saturday program was the positive energy and sense of camaraderie that developed as the group made its way through the subway system. Transit Museum educators and teachers from the Office of Travel Training eased students and parents through a potentially stressful experience in a step-by-step fashion that made the day enjoyable for everyone. Instead of heightening their anxieties, several parents noted that their children were really enjoying the day. Speaking about himself, a father added, “it was a good experience." In written evaluations, parents noted that, "The program has all the tools my son needs to properly travel in the subway system. I was extremely impressed today," while another parent indicated, "My daughter gained more confidence for her to be able to travel by herself in the future." The hope is that these young people will enroll in the Office of Travel Training program when they're in high school and will indeed become independent travelers in their daily lives.

Do you have questions about this or other accessible programs at cultural institutions? Please contact the Museum Access Consortium at We'd love to hear from you and would be happy to share our experiences.