Learning to Drive with ASD

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Driving requires many skills – both physical and mental –  to be used at once. The ability to filter important information from non-important is also critical to safe driving.

For people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), these skills can be more challenging to master than for typical peers. The good news is that many people with autism can become good and safe drivers. In fact, one in three teens with ASD without an intellectual disability acquires a driver’s license before the age of 21.

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Promising Study Results

Autism will certainly affect on a driver’s learning curve, but with a solid understanding of how to meet challenges and some extra time to learn, many people with autism should be able to navigate the roadways well.

A small study comparing the driving skills of individuals with ASD to typical peers showed some promising information. Researchers found that the driving skills of beginning drivers with ASD were significantly worse than their peers. However, this same study revealed the participants with ASD who already earned their driver’s licenses exhibited nearly identical driving habits to their typical peers.

While this study is small and more research needs to be done to confirm, it certainly reveals reasons to be optimistic about driving with autism.

Key Skills Required For Driving

Autism Speaks lists skills important to driving that a person with ASD may struggle to master:

Social judgment and perspective-taking

  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Coordination
  • Planning
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Sustained attention
  • Impulse control and emotion regulation
  • Multitasking and prioritizing

Social judgment and perspective-taking include the ability to understand non-verbal cues from other drivers. When a driver nods his head, is it to signal the ASD driver to go? If another driver flashes high beams at the ASD driver, what might that indicate? Rehearsing scenarios is a great way to practice appropriate responses and prepare for real-life situation.

In order to drive a vehicle, a person must possess motor skills and coordination to be able to control the steering wheel and pedals simultaneously.

Drivers need to be able to plan and follow a route to a destination and understand when the vehicle may need gas or service. The vehicle’s owners manual can be a great tool to help the driver with ASD understand and visualize what maintenance activities are important, when fluids should be checked, and what a dash light might indicate.

A change in weather, a detour, a vehicle breakdown, or a traffic backup are obstacles that require cognitive flexibility for the driver to be able to respond properly. If the vehicle stops working, for instance, the driver with ASD will need to turn on hazard lights, pull to the shoulder, and call for assistance. Once again, rehearsing unexpected situations can help a driver with ASD to respond safely.

The driver must be able to sustain attention on driving for the length of time it takes to get to the destination. Starting with short drives when learning and working up to longer drives is one strategy to improve attention.

While drivers with ASD tend to carefully obey traffic laws, not everyone else on the road does. The driver with ASD must be able to control impulses and regulate emotions when interacting with other drivers who are not following the law precisely. Another stressful situation that requires preparation being pulled over by law enforcement.

The driver needs to be able to focus on the road even when distractions present themselves. They need to see the forest (big picture) rather than just individual trees.

That’s why multitasking and prioritizing are critical to driving. For example, a driver may encounter the following information simultaneously: a new speed limit sign and a tree on the side of the road. The speed limit sign is important to driving while the tree isn’t. This ability to filter what is important is something those with ASD will need to develop strategies to learn.

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Tips for Getting Started

If a person with autism believes he or she can learn these skills as they relate to driving, he or she should speak with a doctor who has experience with ASD for discussion and input.

If the individual interested in driving is still in high school, it can be highly beneficial to have driving goals written into the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Because driving requires some skills that don’t come naturally to individuals with autism, it’s important that adequate time is spent acquiring those skills. It is advantageous if the instructor is knowledgeable in ASD and has experience teaching people with ASD.

The key to learning driving skills for a person with autism is time. Teen Driver Source recommends the following tips gathered from parents of drivers with ASD:

  • Using practice and repetition
  • Breaking down skills into individual steps
  • Using video games and other driving simulation experiences
  • Using verbal and visual scripts prior to drives
  • Staying calm and patient

Once drivers with ASD gain experience and confidence on the road, it’s important that they develop a realistic view of their driving strengths and weaknesses. They should also notify their insurance company that they a special needs individual. Many people with autism place voluntary restrictions on themselves such as not driving at night, not driving in heavy traffic, or not driving on the highway.

There may be times autism may make driving less safe; deciding to avoid those situations is important for the best driving experience.

The independence that driving affords makes the extra effort worth it. It may take a long time, and there will be obstacles, but driving with autism is certainly a possibility to consider and work towards.