Gridlock Guy: MARTA and other transit agencies opening doors for autistic children to shine

For many reasons, warranted and not, talk of mass transit in Atlanta can bring sighs and the occasional gnashing of teeth. But a new initiative that MARTA has joined takes the edge off and creates opportunity for an oft-misunderstood group.

The Autism Transit Project is an initiative that Jonathan Trichter piloted in New York City in 2022. Autistic children were given the chance for just a day to make announcements at Metro Transit Association stations. But this idea was just the latest in a line of Trichter’s help in that community.

Trichter, whose career had been in finance and corporate restructuring, shifted his time and energy to the cause of autism awareness in 2019, after the disorder touched his life, as he put it.

“I was blown away by the kids and the available therapies, so I took a 90-degree turn in my career,” he told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. Trichter founded a program for kids on the spectrum that kept growing in size. That expanded into multiple schools for the autistic and then in-home services and transportation enterprises. Trichter’s programs have expanded from his New York City home to the Pacific Northwest and have become his full-time job.

So how do these larger-scale projects beget train station announcements? In Trichter’s increased involvement with autistic children, he learned of perseveration - when someone gets fixated on a topic or idea. People on the spectrum often have this and many children fixate on machinery, mechanical systems, and trains.

“This is a phenomenon familiar to frontline transit workers around the world. They see these kids dragging their families on joy rides to nowhere or asking [the workers] complex questions that stump them,” Trichter said. He explained that some of these kids’ first complete sentences will be about their fixation and not the normal acquisition of language. Their first words are sometimes even actual train announcements.

So Trichter got the MTA to agree to air these kids’ announcements for one day in 2022. That led to MTA allowing this for the entirety of April, Autism Awareness Month, this year. The 2022 media attention helped Trichter convince four other transit systems to agree to this: Bay Area Rapid Transit (San Francisco), the D.C. Metro, New Jersey’s MTA, and MARTA. The Autism Transit Project’s 2023 success has led Trichter to strive to found it as its own non-profit.

When Trichter learned that Atlanta was in on this, he reached out to his autism community contacts which led him to seven-year-old Immanuel Stephens and his mom, Lisa. Immanuel has been receiving autism services from the Marcus Institute. His extroverted demeanor stood out to case workers and staff.

“There was a recent appointment where he was very outgoing and outspoken,” Lisa explained. “He was greeting visitors, as well as employees.” Stephens said the staff was taken aback by his charisma. This eventually led to Immanuel being recommended to Trichter in March to be one of 19 young announcers on the autism spectrum for MARTA’s part in this new April initiative. His voice would play on station PA systems city-wide.

So Immanuel and his mom got to work, recording a dozen takes of the announcement on a voice recording mobile app. Surprisingly, they weren’t given a verbatim script, but instead some copy points and the license to make the announcement their own. Immanuel and Lisa were able to compose different versions of the script and record it with different voice inflections to get the perfect take. Lisa said that Immanuel likes to write, so he enjoyed helping produce the copy.

“It felt very important,” Immanuel said of his being able to be the main voice of this and even choose what to say.

They then sent the three best cuts to Trichter for him and his editor to trim to MARTA’s standards. Trichter, an Emory graduate, calls Immanuel’s voice, “The prototypical Atlanta accent. This kid is Atlanta. I knew he was going to be a star, as soon as I heard the recording.”

Since then, the Stephens family of Sandy Springs has heard Immanuel’s voice at different MARTA stations. They have also sent the audio to proud relatives all over the country. Immanuel’s first reaction to hearing his own voice in public: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” he exclaimed. “Inside of my body, it feels like, even though it knows what’s happening, it just wants to party! It’s happy about it!” He is also really thrilled, as one might expect, that one of his friends heard him.

Lisa effused gratitude for Trichter, the entire project, and Immanuel’s involvement. “I am hoping that it will raise more awareness about autism and the importance of understanding and supporting these individuals. They’re unique and special.”

MARTA has been so impressed by Immanuel’s work that they decided to extend his announcements through the month of May.

This opportunity has lit a new fire inside the youngster. Immanuel is eager to do more voiceover and media work. “Oh yes! For sure. I could do interviews 24/7.”

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at





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