LIBERTY HILL, Texas (KXAN) — Dave Wigton, 23, is studying at Austin Community College. Before he is able pursue a bachelor’s in computer programming, he needs to save the money he earns from his new job at a clothing store.
Having a driver’s license and being able to get himself to work will help him achieve this goal, said Dave’s mom, Vicki Wigton. When he got his license, it freed up some of her time as well.
“It has made things easier for me, but it’s also put up a set of worries that maybe most parents don’t have,” Vicki said.
Dave was diagnosed with autism when he was 3-years-old. Vicki said he functions at a high level but still has challenges with communication. If pulled over for a traffic stop, Vicki worries the officer may not understand that Dave communicates a little slower than a person not on the autism spectrum.
“If he is not acting like somebody typical, (the officer) has got to do what’s in his judgment is the best thing. And, unfortunately, the best thing to defend himself may be to hurt my child,” Vicki said.
“I get a deep, deep worry that the officer isn’t going to understand Dave,” she added.
To reduce this fear, Vicki went to the Williamson County Tax Office to record Dave’s communication challenges on her vehicle registration. But when she went to submit the forms, she said she was told it was only possible when registering her vehicle for its annual renewal.
“That’s nine to eleven months that nobody knows what his disability is or what to expect if he’s stopped any time during that time period,” Vicki said.
Ensuring better interactions with police
The program that Vicki attempted to use is called the Samuel Allen law. The law is named after a Texas man diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome whose mom, Jennifer Allen, advocated for better interaction between law enforcement and people with communication impediments. A state program also was introduced in conjunction with the law to instruct law enforcement on that interaction.
If someone with communication difficulties would like to record this on their registration, they must complete an online form, print it and submit it at their local tax assessor-collector’s office.
Sgt. Bryan Washko of the Texas Department of Public Safety said there have been instances in his agency where someone on the autism spectrum has reacted slowly at a traffic stop and raised an officer’s concern.
“You automatically think red flags. What are they trying to hide? Are they possibly wanted? Are they about to run? But, in fact, that is somebody who is on the autism spectrum (and) is just having difficulty at that moment,” Sgt. Washko said.
“The main focus is to make sure that these people are treated fairly, just like anyone else at a traffic stop,” said Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, a House sponsor of the bill that became the law.
A representative at the tax office told KXAN this was a training issue and extended apologies to the Wigton family. After our team reached out, the office asked for Vicki’s phone number, assured us the issue would be resolved and said it would soon offer more training to staff.
Though Vicki was eventually able to get Dave’s information added to her registration, Vicki feels requiring someone to go in person to utilize the Samuel Allen Law is a barrier.
“You can’t do this by mail, you can’t do it online. We register our cars online. When COVID came, we didn’t want to be out in the offices. But you cannot do (it online), you have to be in person,” Vicki said.
Martinez said it may be necessary to revisit the law.
“Oh, absolutely,” Martinez said. “(If this is) something that can be done online, maybe we should be doing it. And if it needs to be created through legislation, we’ll have to do that. And we’ll definitely consider doing that this next session.”