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6 Helpful Tips for Navigating A Driver’s License With Autism

December 19, 2023

“What’s the car gonna look like when I do my driving for driver’s education?”

“How will I tell the teacher if I’m not ready for the highway?”

“What if the teacher puts on loud music?”

“What if a bunch of kids are in the car with me?”

6 Helpful Tips for Navigating A Driver's License With Autism

These are the questions I dealt with recently as my 16-year-old daughter went through the process of getting her driver’s license. The process seemed daunting at first. The pride I felt, however, was over-the-top as we conquered each bureaucratic step. After years of stepping in to ask for accommodations, this time, I allowed her to take the reins. She was magnificent.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure a driver’s license was in the cards when I received her diagnosis 10 years ago. Her future looked uncertain at best. It’s normal to question whether your child will be able to reach these traditional American milestones. For us, the answer was, ‘Yes, it’s possible,’ but we needed to take a few extra steps.

Here’s what I learned. I’ve narrowed things down to six helpful tips.

1. Practice

Temple Grandin has stated practice should be the number one priority for anyone with Asperger’s as he/she learns to drive. Start with a bike, then move onto a car. If you can throw a go-kart in between, go for it.

Link: https://youtu.be/azxDvTFSfW4

When my daughter expressed a desire to drive, we went to a rural farm and practiced. This gave me time to watch her ability.

  • Did her anxiety get in the way of clear thinking?
  • Did she have the manual dexterity to maneuver a vehicle?
  • Did she have the focus to handle car in traffic?

For many months, we headed to an open field with an unpaved road surrounding it. Louisa drove the loop at a pace she felt comfortable handling. We treated each corner of the field as a stop sign. We continued like this for a solid year.

As her skills increased, we increased the speed. By the time she enrolled in an online driver’s education course, I felt confident she’d be a great driver.

Maybe you aren’t in an area with farmland. Consider a school parking lot on Sundays. Retirement communities with paved roads also make a great option once your teen can get a handle on the basics.

2. Don’t pressure yourself to meet the 16-year-old birthday deadline

Find a pace that works for your family. No teen ever died from NOT getting their license by age 16.

If you worry your teen lacks the maturity, confidence, or reflexes to handle driving, it’s okay to take the process slow. A driver’s license is a big commitment for both parent and teen. Allow yourself some prep time to gather the requirements in your state. Some states allow online driver’s education courses while other states don’t. Get a clear picture of what’s needed on your state’s department of motor vehicles site. Once the picture is clear, make a list the necessary steps.

3. Don’t get rattled

We all know the importance of staying calm when a child is on the spectrum. The stakes are higher when you add driving to the mix. (https://www.aane.org/teaching-child-calm/)

Because I chose an area with nearly zero traffic, we eliminated a ton of pressure. If my daughter hit the brakes too hard or took a turn too quickly, I reassured her. “It’s okay, you’re getting it,” I’d remind her in a calm voice.

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I know this isn’t easy, especially if your life is flashing before your eyes. If things get tense, stop. Take a break or end the lesson for the day. Each time you practice, however, your teen will gain confidence. Make sure to stop the lesson when one or both of you starts to feel overly stimulated.

You want to build success upon success. If the lesson takes a turn, stop. Pick up where you left off the next time.

Driver's License Application
Driver’s License Application Identification Concept

4. Look for online driver’s education if it’s an option

The stress and energy investment for an in-person class wasn’t worth it for us. My daughter’s social anxiety would over-shadow anything she could have learned.

If, however, online driver’s education isn’t an option in your state, consider private driver’s education for individuals. Most driver’s education companies have an option for individual lessons. The fee may end up being higher, but the lightened stress load on you is priceless.

The Association for Driver Rehabilitation for Specialists offers some great tips on finding an appropriate driver’s education instructor: https://www.aded.net/default.aspx.

Before you give up on online education, give the DMV a call and ask if your teen’s diagnosis alters the requirements. Some driver’s education companies offer courses designed for kids with special needs. Do your homework before committing. Take the time to find the course best suited for your teen.

Check out these highly rated online driver’s education courses: https://www.cartalk.com/drivers-ed.

5. Cushion the experience with plenty of selfcare and rewards

No one enjoys spending the day at the DMV. Add the stress of supporting your Aspie teen through this bureaucracy, and you have a recipe for overload. I dreaded the actual driving lessons with an instructor. I worried my daughter’s anxiety would make the experience terrible.

Driving School
Young woman steer a car with the steering wheel, maybe she has a driving test perhaps she exercises the parking

Instead, because of our year of driving practice, she handled it like a champ. She was the best driver in the bunch.

Once we completed that portion, I gave both myself and my daughter a reward, meaning two facials. Making it to this point seemed fairly miraculous compared to what I anticipated.

Celebrate the successes, but still expect some delays.

Because we homeschool, there were a few surprises for us. We needed to print out a form from the state’s department of education showing we were a legit homeschool.

Even if you don’t homeschool, I guarantee there will be some hiccups along the way. Accept there will be a form or something the state will need when you can’t find it. Take it in stride and keep your calm for your teen’s sake. Once you jump through a challenging hoop, celebrate with whatever counts as recreation for you and your teen.

6. Create a printed schedule, and add it to the fridge

Creating a driver’s license timeline for your teen may ease some of the tension. The process is a lengthy one. In our state, there’s a one year wait between getting a permit and the final test. Counting our practice time, this means the entire process will take three solid years.

For a teen on the spectrum, this long list of requirements feels daunting. So, break it down and give them an idea of what to expect and when.

If more details makes your teen more calm, provide them. Ask the driving instructor what type of car, what color, how many students in each driving session. If it makes life easier to ask, ask. If your teen needs to learn how to ask these questions, have them ask via an email, phone call, or smoke signal.

Sample driver’s license timeline:

January through October: Driving practice in school parking lot weekly for 1 hour.

September: Sign up for driver’s education course.

October through December: Take classwork portion of course.

December: Schedule driving with driver’s education teacher and complete driving.

February: Gather paperwork for driver’s permit. Schedule a day in March for test at DMV.

February: Take practice tests before the written permit test.

March: Take permit test. Make sure to gather paperwork the night beforehand.

March through August: Practice driving at least one hour weekly.

August: Study for driving test.

September: Schedule driving test and take it at the appointed time.

First and foremost, make sure your teen knows how to stay safe. There some situations only parents of teens on the spectrum will know. For me, I want my daughter prepared for the day a driver may cut her off and rattle her anxiety level. It’s important to me she understand how to function well in those situations. So, we practice by pretending something like that happens.

Plus, once she gets her license to drive alone, she will be taking a defensive driving course. Do whatever it takes to make you and your teen comfortable with his/her driving.

For more tips for parents and teens on the spectrum related to driving, visit: https://www.teendriversource.org/learning-to-drive/driving-with-special-needs/autism-spectrum-disorders-and-driving

This article was featured in Issue 98 – Fresh ASD Guidance For A New Year

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