‘Safety first’: MARTA lets kids with autism give announcements

Immanuel Stephens swings with his mother Lisa at the Sandy Springs City Green Park. Immanuel , 7, participated in the Autism Transit Project for MARTA.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Immanuel Stephens swings with his mother Lisa at the Sandy Springs City Green Park. Immanuel , 7, participated in the Autism Transit Project for MARTA. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Nine-year-old Reagan Snow loves trains and is delighted in letting Atlanta’s mass transit riders know that before gently reminding them to help keep MARTA clean.

Immanuel Stephens, 7, also loves trains. And he enjoys public speaking, so after using his most persuasive voice about not littering, he signs off with an impromptu, “Hope you enjoy your ride.”

Reagan and Immanuel are among a dozen children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ADS) who recorded public service announcements for the MARTA Transit Autism Awareness Project.

The announcements started in April during Autism Awareness Month and continue this month. They can be heard on the platforms at MARTA’s 38 rail stations.

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can make communicating or interacting with others difficult.

But it’s not always the case. These young announcers spiced up dry, mundane messages on cleanliness and safety with exclamations of “safety first” and “all aboard.”

Customer feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Stephany Fisher, MARTA’s senior director of communications.

“We’ve heard from people who say hearing the young voices absolutely makes their day, others who have a favorite announcement, and customers with autism spectrum disorder who appreciate being represented and expressing interest in being part of the project next year,” she said.

Immanuel Stephens plays at the Sandy Springs City Green Park. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

Listen to Immanuel

New Yorker Jonathan Trichter developed the project last year for his city, then expanded it to other cities this year to increase autism awareness.

Trichter operates several autism learning centers in the Northeast. He wanted an awareness project that involved mass transit because he said many neuro-atypical kids are fascinated by trains and other mechanical marvels.

He said some even fixate on trains, often reciting announcements they’ve heard on transit platforms.

“This is well-familiar to front-line transit employees who see these kids dragging their families on joy rides to nowhere or asking them questions so complex that they’re stumped,” Trichter said.

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority agreed to the project and rolled out the announcements on train platforms throughout the New York City transit system for one day last April. Nevertheless, it garnered enough favorable response that Trichter extended invitations to other city transit systems this year. MARTA was quick to get on board.

“We at MARTA share an enthusiasm for trains and are proud to feature the voices of those with ASD on our platforms,” said Collie Greenwood, MARTA general manager and CEO.

Trichter recruited his Atlanta announcers through social media sites and other places special needs families congregate. MARTA provided the scripts, but the children and young adults were encouraged to add their unique twists.

Immanuel was able to show off his charisma and the outgoing personality he’s known for, said his mom, Lisa Stephens, of Sandy Springs.

Stephens called the transit project a “positive, uplifting endeavor” and said she was grateful to be part of it. She said her son is the type who never meets a stranger, and she hopes the project will open doors for him and others on the autism spectrum.

“This is bringing more awareness, but a lot of people don’t even know what autism is or the diversity involved in autism,” said Stephens. “It’s not a limitation; it’s just a different way of learning.”

Reagan also enjoyed taking part in the announcements. Creating recordings and videos of herself is something she does regularly, said her mother, Samantha Snow of Loganville.

“And she really does love trains. She would always get so excited about riding trains” when she was younger, Snow said.

Reagan Snow, 9, of Loganville, loves trains. She was selected to give public announcements for MARTA's transit autism awareness project. Courtesy of Samantha Snow

Credit: spec

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Credit: spec

Listen to Reagan

Samantha Snow said she hopes these announcements will make others more understanding of neuro-atypical behaviors when they encounter someone with ASD.

She also suggests the autism awareness project should expand the public announcements to other places, such as hospitals and doctors’ offices, to reach more people.

“You can’t get acceptance and change people’s behavior without first bringing awareness to the cause,” Snow said. “The more awareness you can put out there, the more likely there will be acceptance.”