Advocate for Understanding Autism
DeGroat helping to bridge the gap in communication, education
Seeing red-and-blue lights suddenly flashing behind your vehicle can be startling for anyone; however, for most people, getting pulled over is little more than an inconvenience — and perhaps some slight embarrassment — that interrupts the flow of their day.
Yet for someone on the autism spectrum or who has a communication impediment, that small disruption can be a much more terrifying ordeal. The lights and loud sounds can overstimulate and cause anxiety and fear. According to Xavier DeGroat, founder and CEO of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation, even being tailgated can raise anxiety levels, making a driver keyed up before he or she is even pulled over.
When a driver with autism experiences heightened anxiety, that increase in fear can inhibit his or her ability to communicate, which can turn a minor traffic stop into a complicated situation for both the police officer and the driver.
That overstimulation and inability to communicate isn’t a new experience for DeGroat, who is on the autism spectrum. DeGroat started his foundation due to his experiences being disciplined because of his autism and dealing with bullies, as well as learning what it’s like for an average family to take on the challenges of a special-needs child. In school, DeGroat was often restrained and stopped from pursuing the things he needed to feel comfortable because it was seen as a disruption.
“I was told to sit and not get up,” he said. “We (those on the spectrum) need to be able to expose our minds to calm.”
He would try to go on a walk to ease his anxiety, but he couldn’t communicate that need with his teachers or paraprofessionals, who would punish him for being disruptive. He also was called to the school office for things he didn’t understand were wrong, like getting too close to people or not understanding nonverbal cues. One of DeGroat’s trips to the office ended in a call to the police and a suspension because his frustration at not being able to communicate his feelings manifested as anger.
“It’s like punishing someone for not understanding because they don’t speak the language,” DeGroat said. “They think I should be like everyone else, but why can’t I be me?”
While schools and educators today have a deeper understanding of what kids with special needs require, when DeGroat was a child there weren’t a lot of people to advocate for him. As an adult, he realized he needed to advocate for himself and others like him. In 2009, DeGroat began to share his story around Lansing and with local leaders.
“I was focused on educating these individuals and helping them see the perspective of someone on the spectrum and bring social change to their organizations,” he said.
After being pulled over for a routine stop, DeGroat realized that some of those social changes needed to happen within the transportation industry. During that stop, DeGroat found himself upset because he didn’t understand what the police officer wanted. Those on the spectrum, DeGroat said, often are “self-minded” and can’t see outside their own needs and experiences.
“I don’t have the mind to know or understand what he’s thinking,” DeGroat said, noting that can cause anxiety, which can turn into adrenaline for someone with autism.
While DeGroat’s traffic stop ended without incident, many don’t. After being pulled over, the first thing DeGroat did was call the police chief. He knew things needed to change.
Today, DeGroat is working to pass a law that would let drivers with autism or hearing loss (or a family member) voluntarily disclose a “communication impediment designation” to the secretary of state when getting a driver’s license or registering their vehicle. That designation would show up when a police officer ran their plate, giving the officer a better understanding of how to interact with the person he or she is about to approach. The change would mean that officers would be required to run plates before exiting their vehicles and would receive training on how to interact with those with communication challenges.
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth is just one of DeGroat’s many supporters and fully backs the legislation.
“Information is power in police work, especially on traffic stops,” he said. “If the police could have information that the driver of the vehicle is possibly autistic, we can better prepare for the encounter prior to contact, increasing the likelihood it goes smoothly.”
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and now goes to the House. If the bill is signed by the governor, Michigan would be one of the first states to offer the designation. After that, DeGroat wants to take the bill to other states.
Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, is another supporter of DeGroat’s legislation.
“Xavier has been a tireless advocate for individuals with autism and other special needs,” he said.
DeGroat’s efforts to spread autism awareness aren’t limited to Lansing. Locally, he has received support from former Michigan State University football coach Mark Dantonio, MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and numerous local celebrities and politicians, but he’s also started building a list of contacts full of celebrities and internationally known names. DeGroat has had conversations with Vice President Mike Pence, author and astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, celebrity chef Rachel Ray and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, just to name a few.
Still, his talks don’t end with police stops. DeGroat has spoken with President Donald Trump about the challenges of everyday transportation, as well as airports and air travel. They discussed trying to let those with autism sit at the front of the plane so they can get out of the crowd faster when it’s time to deplane. Situations like that can often cause sensory overload and even security lines can be a daunting task.
Personal vehicles are the best choice for those with autism, but many can’t drive so autonomous vehicles could mean a new level of freedom for those on the spectrum. DeGroat is working with General Motors on how to make self-driving cars sensory-friendly and safe, including adding screens that would allow caretakers and emergency personnel to see inside the vehicle.
If DeGroat’s bill is signed into law, his work won’t stop. His foundation will be providing both the training for police officers on how to approach a car driven by someone with a communication challenge and cards officers can carry with reminder protocols that they can reference whenever needed.
Barrett has high hopes for the bill:
“Our hope is that the bills we are working on together will improve the interactions between those with a communication impediment, including autism, and our law enforcement community. These bills are not just common sense, they are also the right thing to do,” Barrett said.
DeGroat is looking to make tangible changes but also to disprove doubters for himself and others like him:
“I define my own life, no one defines me.”
Given the impact on those he’s worked with, it seems he’s doing just that.
“Xavier’s hard work on all things autism has been impressive to watch and be a part of,” said Wrigglesworth. “If everyone had just one thing to be as passionate about as Xavier is about autism, the world would be a much better place.”