You might be hearing some new voices on your BART station announcements this month, as a group of Bay Area youngsters with autism are the stars of a new series of BART public-address bits.
Some new BART station announcements are being broadcast across the transit system this month, with announcers who employ their own signature style. This month, a young announcer named Azaleia declares, “Please stand behind the yellow platform as your train arrives. It scares the train operator if you are too close, and it is dangerous. Stay safe out there, guys.”
Or a youngster named Cameron announcing, “You can now pay for your BART using your smartphone or Apple Watch. How cool is that?” Or a tyke named Ken encouraging you, “Please do not leave trash or litter in stations or on trains, it is gross. And like my mom and my grandma always say, ‘Let’s keep things tidy.’”
This is not just happening on BART. Today’s New York Times reports on kids with autism recording public transit announcements all over the country, which are playing in April for Autism Acceptance Month. The Times reports that approximately 100 kids and teens with autism recorded the messages for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Washington, D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), and of course here in the Bay Area on BART.
For example, young Krissh tells BART riders, “Please leave designated priority seating for seniors and persons with disabilities. Not only is it the law but it is also a nice thing to do.”
This now-national project is the brainchild of Jonathan Trichter, a co-founder of the several developmental disability schools and, as he tells SFist,“What’s now being called the Autism Transit Project.”
We spoke to Trichter about how this Autism Acceptance Month transit announcement train got rolling. “My background was in finance, but my life was personally touched by autism so I did a ninety-degree turn in my career,” he tells us. “I started a small program for kids on the spectrum, which turned into a medium-size program, and now I’ve got schools across the U.S.”
“When I became immersed into the world of autism, I became familiar with something called ‘perseverative behaviors,’ which is a medical term for intense focus on things that neurotypical people find asocial,” Trichter explains. “It can include feats of mechanical engineering that we encounter every day, especially with trains. Frontline transit workers across the U.S,. and around the world are familiar with this because they see kids on the spectrum every day dragging their families on joyrides to nowhere, or asking them questions that are so complex they’re stumped.”
“These kids come onto language differently than typical children,” he says. “And so oftentimes they’ll grab onto phrases they hear in places where they’re focused. As a result, it’s really not unusual for a kid on the spectrum to utter as his or her first words, ‘Stand clear of the doors.’”
Trichter approached the New York MTA in 2022 to have kids with autism record these announcements, and the MTA took him up on it. Those announcements only ran for one day. But they generated enough appeal and media attention that Trichter approached other transit agencies this year.
“BART enthusiastically embraced the project, and put together a wonderful recording event for the kids, and rolled it out in a way that really highlighted the special relationship they have with children on the spectrum who love trains,” Trichter tells us.
These announcements have been playing every 30 minutes since April 10, and will continue for the remainder of April. So listen for Ardalon informing you, “If you drop anything on the tracks, ask your station agent to get it for you. They have special grabber sticks that are really cool and safe.”
The kids recorded these announcements at BART’s in-house sound studio. “It was wonderful to see the joy on their faces as they got to utter the phrases that they hear when they are themselves on the transit system,” Trichter says. “They just couldn’t have been prouder, really pure joy.”
And like public transportation vehicles, this Autism Transit Project is going places. “We’re going to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, raise money, and next year we’re hoping to go to other countries,” he explains. “I’d like to go to some places that have state-of-the-art mass transit systems, but more mixed histories when it comes to including neurodiverse people into their societies.”
You can listen to all of the BART Autism Acceptance Month announcements online. But they’ll only be playing at the train stations through Sunday, so pop on BART to hear Skylar tell you, “Stay clear of the closing door, They are not like elevator doors and they will close on you. And don’t hold the train doors open. The train operator will have to fix it, and it will delay everyone.”