Autism advocate’s brush with police leads to proposed driver’s license designation

Tyler Leech, 27, of Des Moines, wants an autism designation on his driver's license to raise awareness with police. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Leech)

Tyler Leech was leaving a church group’s bowling outing in West Des Moines one evening when he was pulled over by a police officer.  A hard-rock party was going on nearby at the Val-Air Ballroom and there were a lot of police in the area.

Leech has autism.  “The cop asked me, did I know that my taillight was out, and I looked at him all confused,” he said.

Before he knew it, the Des Moines man was out of the car, handcuffed and being subjected to a pat-down.  The officer searched his pockets and asked if he’d been smoking marijuana.

“I told him no, ‘I’ve never smoked anything in my life,’ ” Leech said. He doesn’t even drink alcohol.

When no drugs turned up on Leech or in a search of the car, he was released. But the experience was traumatic, his mother, Sheri Leech, said.

“He was embarrassed and ashamed and he didn’t even tell his dad it happened,” she said. “He felt very violated being handcuffed.”

She said the incident could have had a far worse outcome, if her son had become frightened and tried to run, resisted being detained or tried to pull his phone out of his pocket. “My son could have been shot,” she said.

Tyler Leech, 27, decided to do something about that.

In January, he had an opportunity to visit the State Capitol with a friend, who introduced him to state Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines.  He told the senator his story.

State Sen. Tony Bisignano is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo by Iowa Legislature)

On Thursday, the rest of the Iowa Senate heard it. Bisignano encouraged senators to pass legislation to allow drivers who have an autism spectrum disorder to request a designation on their driver’s license.

Bisignano said the measure would alert police officers that the driver has a disability that could account for a demeanor or behaviors that might otherwise be misinterpreted. “This symbol will be up front, when they ask for a license, they’ll know they’re dealing with someone on the spectrum,” Bisignano said in an interview.

Bisignano, who is in the minority party, needed to bypass the normal legislative process to attach the measure to an unrelated bill dealing with farm vehicles. He gained the cooperation of Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, to move the legislation.

The bill provided a rare feel-good moment in the Iowa Senate.

“I’m so darn happy right now,” Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale said.  “This is what is right about Iowa.”

The Senate approved the amendment on a voice vote and passed the final bill, House File 2372, unanimously. The House still needs to approve the bill with the Senate changes. Sheri Leech thinks the timing is perfect.

“I can’t imagine it not passing because right now they’re talking about police and the overuse of authority,” she said.

Tyler Leech, a frequent speaker and advocate for people with disabilities as well as a full-time employee at Wells Fargo, hopes it will raise awareness.

“I think that this will help because there’s an assumption that people with autism can’t drive. And by having these things on the license it will give everyone the idea that people with autism can drive and police will get more training on these kinds of things so they understand what to do and understand that some things may feel uncomfortable to them,” Leech said.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.