By Ruby Bolaria
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
Taking public transportation with an energetic, rambunctious child is hard enough.
Now, imagine that child has autism.
The condition brings another set of challenges for caretakers, many of which are not understood.
Lisa Schweitzer a 2004 Urban Planning Ph.D. alum from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs has spent much of her time researching what barriers the built environment creates for parents of autistic children. Schweitzer is currently an associate professor at the University of Southern California, where she conducted research within the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
“[Autistic] kids either love buses or struggle on them," Schweitzer said. "Some get excited on the bus and are always touching people and things which can make some [riders] uncomfortable and is exhausting for caregivers to constantly monitor and control.”
Schweitzer said it is surprising how many autistic kids are kicked off the bus due to their overly inquisitive and energetic nature, which is linked to their condition. Solving how to accommodate autistic youth and ease the caregiver’s burden is challenging. Schweitzer said they are just beginning to evaluate the research and are looking at potential policy suggestions, including more transit training and education, separate ride shares with other autistic parents and more car ownership. The lessons for policy makers are still unsure at this point, she said.
Schweitzer said many caregivers of autistic children stressed the convenience and freedom of cars. Cars provide a controlled environment that allows parents to adjust temperature, music and removes strangers among other benefits, she said.
In addition to transit, her research looked at other aspects of the built environment, including parks. Schweitzer suggested a simple fence or enclosed space within parks would greatly benefit caregivers and ensure more safety.
Schweitzer has always been focused on promoting greater social justice and inclusion. Her work at UCLA focused around normative urban theory on how to resolve ethical dilemmas around urban development within Los Angeles. Autistic children and their caregivers are examples of excluded groups and her research will shed light on how policy makers and planners can do a better job to accommodate these populations.
“Parents don’t have a lot of time or the know-how to address these kinds of issues," she said. "This research provides the foundation to begin the dialogue needed to help these underserved communities.”
More than research, Schweitzer says teaching is how she really gives back.
“Ensuring students can be the very best they can be professionally and to think ethically is how I believe I can make the biggest impact," she said. "I want students in their professional work to think ‘Is this the right thing to do? Who does this serve? What impact will this have?’”