For individuals with autism, driving may seem like a goal that will never be achieved, even though driving is both a marker to independence and adulthood. Yet, up until recently, Dr. Gary Gaffney, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University Of Iowa College Of Medicine, reported that most people never thought individuals with autism were capable or interested in driving.
Researchers from Drexel University also previously indicated that adults with autism (a) earn their driver’s licenses at later ages, (b) drive less frequently, and (c) place self-imposed limits that include not driving on highways or night. One woman that I interviewed for my dissertation study indicated that her son with autism earned his driver’s license, they bought him a vehicle, and he had three scraped bumper incidences just backing out of their garage. Mary was worried about her son driving because she didn’t feel he was mature enough. He was 16 years old at the time.
Potential other reasons for differences in driving behavior among individuals with autism may include (1) increased self-awareness regarding potential difficulties, (2) worries regarding sensory-integration, and (3) potential problems processing sights and sounds. Other parents cited they were worried about their child’s ability to concentrate, understand nonverbal communication, and expect the unexpected, which were weighing factors in their child’s potential difficulties. No doubt, parents are worried about their child with autism driving. To justify this concern, Cecilia Feeley is a Project Manager at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University and reported that only 24 percent of adults with autism described themselves as independent drivers. The caveat here is that this report comes from New Jersey, which has some of the fastest and most unpredictable drivers James and I have ever encountered.
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I would add from my own observation there are several other factors that may contribute to parental worries, including their child’s motion restrictions, depth perception problems, glitches with reaction time, not easily anticipating the behavior of other drivers, inadequate training, and an overall difficulty with pre-planning and navigation. These issues are complicated by mindblindness, which is a limiting factor in being able to read the social clues involved with driving.
James, Learns to Drive and Gets a Car – Whew!
That said, my 23-year-old autistic son, James, earned his driver’s license, and his dad gave him a car to drive back and forth to work. His shift ends at 10 p.m., and we both think it is kind of crazy for me to drive across town to take him to work and pick him up. He has accomplished so much more than anyone told me was ever possible, and so driving seems like a limitation that we want to abandon. This is a milestone we are ready to embrace. And away we go…
From a timeline perspective, James learned to drive when he was 19 years old, which was a little later than most kids. When James was a young boy, his pediatrician told me that James was going to learn and succeed. He had seen a lot of kids like James, and he felt that he was a late bloomer who would eventually develop similarly to his peers, but milestones would happen later.
He pointedly told me that James would learn, and he asked if it really mattered to me if it was later when milestones were going to be achieved.The doctor had eight kids himself and reassured me that each child was different, unique, and all developed according to their own scatter plot. On a personal note, I should have known driving was in James’ future because as a child, he had a couple of those little electric cars, and gained prowess driving around the yard, backing up, navigating around pine trees, and chasing the dog.
After driving with my son and practicing with him for several weeks, I have no doubts that he is going to be an excellent driver. Getting to this milestone has been paved with strategies that I know have helped prepare my son for this journey. James will share what helped him get ready for the road:
- Practice open communication. My mom shared her concerns upfront about my driving. We discussed potential difficulties and ways to overcome or deal with these issues. I read articles about problems that other individuals with autism experience and strategies to overcome these issues. I listen when my mom tells me stuff.
- Know the rules of the road. I downloaded the PDF version or obtain the driver’s handbook from the DMV in my states. I read them cover to cover and memorized these as role plays. Both of my parents worked with me on this.
- Get trained by a professional. I drove with a trained professional who customized training for my special circumstances. My parents explained that I was autistic and might need special attention. A few years later, after I earned my driver’s license, I took lessons again to stay in practice. This really helped me.
- Practice…practice…practice. We practiced driving around a parking lot a lot. This is also an area where you can practice parking or parallel parking with empty buckets if that is a necessary thing in the state where you are driving. I still don’t like parallel parking and will avoid it at all costs…and, so does my mom. Sometimes driving wisely means considering your own limitations. We all have things that make us uncomfortable. If I want to go to downtown Los Angeles, I will take the train.
- Study the test. There are free practice tests that are available online. I studied for months and knew the test inside and out. We practiced every night for several weeks to ensure I could pass the written part to get a permit. I only missed four on the written exam in two states.
- Go over how to handle a police interaction. While none of us ever want to get pulled over, it is important that we understand that is just part of driving. Preparing for this eventuality helps me limit my stress regarding when and if it does happen. For parents, it is also important to decide if your teen has any problem with sirens or any of the normal noises that occur when driving. This can shift whether your child drives or not.
On a personal note, I was pulled over by a police officer the other day on my bike. I was given a warning for not signaling properly. I was not scared. The officer was very polite. He was doing his job. This type of situation is really helpful to know how to handle this event in the future. Rest assured, I learned my lesson and will bike better from now on.
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- Know what you own. My car is a 1991 Mercedes wagon. The car is old with pretty low miles. There is a lot of metal around me! To get ready, we regularly went over the owner’s manual of the vehicle together. I know how to operate the car inside and out. Every car is different. Have your autistic teen demonstrate how to use turn signals, headlamps, fog lamps, hazards, and rear/front defrost.
- ALWAYS practice on an automatic car. My mom drives a manual transmission. I am not ready for a driving experience of this magnitude. I can assure you that practicing on an automatic will help your teen be more focused on what is going on around them and ease anxiety about any possibility that they will have to shift any gears. Many people without autism never drive a vehicle with a manual transition. It is okay if your autistic child only drives an automatic.
- Turn off the music before you drive. For practicing drivers especially, music is a distraction and the knobs can be worse. My mom told me once that she nearly drove off the road as a practicing driver when she was playing with knobs. My grandmother would not drive with her for a month after.
- After your teen has gotten their driving permit LET them drive! Plan day trips to places in the local surrounding area and let him/her drive a predetermined route. My mom and I talked about pre-planning routes ahead of time. She said I should visualize what I want to do, and then we practiced. Visualization is a tool that I regularly use in all kinds of practice.
Finally, I am really excited about having the opportunity to drive. I know this is a mile marker that many people with autism do not reach. I feel lucky that my parents trust me enough for this opportunity. My dad is giving me an older Mercedes station wagon, and I know this is a safe car that I really treasure. I am going to make good decisions, continue to practice, and think about what I am doing on the road and in life. Higher expectations have been placed on me. I am going to achieve my goals, including driving a manual transmission one day.
This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism