two women giving judgemental glances

Tips to help autistic people on public transport

Autistic people can get overloaded by everything around them. It's like all the senses are firing, all at once. Like there's no filter. Like they're getting too much information.

The latest film in our Too Much Information campaign focuses on the impact unexpected changes can have on autistic people. Our film, starring Saskia, shows her becoming increasingly anxious due to the unexpected changes on her train journey.

There are many ways you can help stop an autistic person from feeling overwhelmed on public transport. Here are just a few of them:

  • some autistic people may manage their experience of a journey through repetitive physical behaviours, for example, tapping their fingers or flapping their hands. This is perfectly normal; try not to stare or make them feel self-conscious
  • be aware of personal space. An autistic person may have sensitivity to touch and even the experience of someone lightly brushing past them can be overwhelming for them
  • if you ask an autistic person a question and they don’t respond or find it difficult to make eye contact, show kindness and remove the pressure for them to respond immediately
  • if an autistic person is having a meltdown, ask them if they are alright and if there is anything you could do to help, or just give them space and time to deal with the situation
  • be aware of sensory needs. It may not be a question of rudeness if someone needs to move seats or open a window; it may be that a particular smell, visual stimulus, or noise is overstimulating them.

Other tips

Whether you're at the shops, on public transport, at work or out with friends, a change as simple as using clear language, having a bit of patience, or avoiding last minute changes can really help. Understand autism, the person, and the change you can make. Find out what else you can do to help an autistic person.


What is a meltdown?

A meltdown is when an autistic person gets overwhelmed by everything around them, and may begin to shout, scream, cry or lose control.

What can I do?

Spare a moment. First things first- try not to judge. Be patient, calmly ask if they're OK and give them some time and space to recover. That really is all it takes to help. Read about Kane, an autistic 19 year old, and his experiences of meltdowns, and how people can help.

Unexpected changes

What's meant by 'unexpected changes'?

The world can be an unpredictable, confusing place for autistic people, and that makes a set routine crucial for getting by. So when something unexpected still happens, it can feel like the whole world is spinning out of control.

What can I do?

Give some warning. The best way for an autistic person to deal with unexpected changes is to, well, expect them! So if plans do change, let them know in advance. A little notice and understanding can go a long way. 

Social anxiety

What is it?

Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be exhausting and stressful for autistic people, causing many to end up feeling excluded and isolated.

What can I do?

Take an interest. Invite them to join in as much as they feel they want to. And if they're struggling, just offer some support. A little really can go a long way. Read our stories from autistic people who talk about how they deal with social anxiety.

Processing time

What is it?

Sometimes autistic people feel like they're getting 'too much information' and need a few moments to filter through it all. This is called processing time.

What can I do?

Give a minute. Ask one question as simply as you can, and just wait. If you still don't get a response, try rephrasing it or writing it down instead. Read stories from autistic people who talk about processing time

Sensory overload

What is it?

Autistic people can be sensitive to lights, sounds, smells and sights. This can lead to an overload – and a meltdown.

What can I do?

Make some space. Lots of little things can add up to an overload of sensory information. Which means little things from you can cut this down- try to avoid talking over each other, turn down your music, or even just offer to dim glaring lights. Read stories from autistic people who talk about their experiences of sensory overload.

What else can I do?

There are plenty of ways you can help reduce the overload for autistic people. Small changes can make a big difference. Make a pledge now to see how you can help.

Make a pledge