Johnny, my son, my oldest, the first one of my children to start learning to drive, sat behind the wheel. Beside him, in the passenger’s seat, my heart skipped a beat; Our roles were reversed for the very first time.
Pride mixed with nostalgia, mixed with fear, and then accompanied my deep inhale as I instructed him to go ahead. As we backed out of the driveway of the house he grew up in, my life with my kid flashed before my eyes.
Where did the time go? Could he do this? Can autistic people drive? I asked those questions to myself, then answered myself: “You know he can do this; you know him. Every challenge he has ever faced, including the ones autism presented, he conquered. He’s got this.”
In this article I would like to share a bit about how we as parents can help our child with autism spectrum disorder through the process of learning, getting their driver’s license, and the most important thing, help their child be a safe driver.
You may be wondering what research shows about how autistic teens and young adults compare to their non autistic peers when it comes to driving. Do they have similar crash risk?
So much of the results have depended upon the use of virtual driving research. The conclusions reached have been mostly from data collected using virtual driving technology, and less real life driving courses.
This can make it unclear how the challenges autistic individuals face really affect their driving. One thing that is clear, however, is that individuals on the autism spectrum drive differently from their neurotypical peers, and more individualized training and preparation go a long way to helping people with autism achieve their independence and drive safely.
Curves of learning driving skills
What specific unique challenges does autism bring that can make learning to drive, or driving safety a concern? People with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with some key aspects that can affect their ability to drive.
These struggles can have a wide range of severity from person to person, and their impact varies greatly for each individual. Here are some of the top struggles someone with autism could face that could affect their driving skills.
- motor skills and coordination challenges
- mental flexibility issues
- reduced visual perception
- poor planning skills
- attention problems
- slower hazard detection times
- cognition issues: working memory, intellectual disability
- multi tasking complications
Executive functioning issues can take their toll even in those with high functioning autism. However, with proper preparation, lots of practice driving, and optimal learning conditions, teens and young adults with autism who want to be behind the wheel can become great drivers.
“Highways” of success
There are some qualities, common to autism, that promote good driving. One of them is rigidity in thinking.
Autistic individuals who adhere closely to rules, enjoy detailed planning, and do well with consistency can appreciate some things about driving, and it may actually help them be safer drivers.
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Planning a road trip, regardless of how long, is important. The fact that traffic lights, traffic laws, and visual clarity of things like road signs, are all the same across the country can be helpful. Knowing what to expect and being able to plan accordingly can promote confidence, reduce anxiety, and make preparing to drive somewhere more fun.
Of course rigidity has a flip side—carefully laid plans may be thwarted on the fly which can cause problems when driving. These things can be prepared for, and we as parents and driving instructors, can help.
“Road” signs of driving readiness
How can we know our child is ready? Determining readiness is a key factor when deciding when to allow our children and young adults to take their driver’s test. Often this starts years before they are even of age.
Working with a developmental pediatrician can be one of the first steps and one of the earliest implementations we can make to prepare a child for the future. Neurodevelopmental differences, when caught early, can be addressed, and our child can build a foundation throughout their early years that will be beneficial when it is time to practice driving.
An occupational therapist can help our child with autism tackle some of the executive functioning challenges they may have.
Physical therapy can help with decreased motor skills, and help build many other skills for our children, making the process of becoming good drivers easier down the line.
The more help they receive before they are ready for driving, the more equipped they will be when it is time to practice driving. Most of the time, when they are ready, they will know before we do. Following their lead often informs us more than we would probably like to admit.
“Vehicle” of safety
What helpful information can we make sure our child knows before “hitting the road”? How can we help them define and reach their driving goals? Here is a list of things our children can learn that can reduce their anxiety and help them, as well as us, feel more confident with them behind the wheel.
- taking care of a car
- changing tires
- when to add air to the tires and how much
- changing oil
- what to do in an accident
- switching to new routes
- technology: when and how to utilize it
- weather hazards: planning around and changing at the last minute
- what to do if a police officer is pulling them over for a traffic violation
It is important that any constructive criticism we give is clear, kind, and promotes calm.
Teaching our child with autism to drive requires more planning, clear instructions, and they may benefit from a “Plans A, B, and C” approach. Plans can change, and helping our children understand and accept that can help immensely.
Planning for contingencies can help.
- Plan A can be driving somewhere with no issues
- Plan B can take into consideration other drivers, they can learn to anticipate road rage, not following the rules, and potential hazards that could all impose a need to adjust
- Plan C could cover accidents, traffic violations, needing to find other ways to go on maps, multitasking, and attitude adjustments
These plans can all require the need for cognitive flexibility, good judgment, and alternative forms of transportation.
There are programs specifically designed for autistic students learning to drive. These take into consideration the needs of autistic individuals, the way they learn best, and driving instructors aim to provide clear and concise instruction for optimal results. Success for drivers starts with the learning process.
Obstacles to driving with autism
What kinds of issues might make it impossible, or unadvisable for an individual with autism to drive? Here are a few:
- comorbid conditions (ie epilepsy)
- severe intellectual disability
- severity of other autism symptoms: behavioral issues, impairment of motor skills, etc.
It is important to note that some of the above may mean the person would not be able to drive at all, or it could mean they would need some accommodations to make it safe. (For example: medications, or modifications to vehicles).
Andrew Arboe is the founder of Driving with Autism, an online program that helps autistic individuals to obtain their driver’s license. Andrew is also autistic, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions from his personal experience.
He shared with me that the biggest myth he can see concerning autism and driving, is that no one should talk about it. He confided: “Most special education and autism conferences talk only about public transit and other similar series with no mention of driving. So, I had to practice without much resources to work with.”
He offers advice to parents who may be apprehensive about their autistic child learning to drive: “A lot of my anxiety came from myself because of those non-resources. It affected my dad who was super anxious about me driving and it took time for him to get used to the idea.
“The very first thing I advise is to be calm during the practice lessons. It is likely that your new driver will be very anxious or on the edge, so it takes out their anxiety when you are calm. Another important aspect is knowing their needs and preferences as well. Know what sensory needs they have and settle them before they take the steering wheel.
“Forcing them will add nothing but trouble, and may exclude them from driving at all if it goes wrong. Knowing how your new driver operates is key for a successful driving practice.”
He also shared: “Each person is an individual, and one approach does not cover the whole community. They have their individual needs and opinions on various autism topics and that is okay. There really is not a collective that covers all.”
Arriving home (summing-up)
With guidance and support, people with autism can learn the necessary skills to become confident and good drivers. I hope some of the ideas and suggestions will help your child on their road to success.
Wilson, NJ, Lee, HC, Vaz, S., Vindin, P., & Cordier, R. (2018). Scoping Review of the Driving Behavior of and Driver Training Programs for People on the Autism Spectrum. Behavioral neurology, 20186842306. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/6842306