Autism Behind the Wheel: Teaching Teens and Young Adults on the Spectrum to Drive- Carmen Adams
*Editor’s note: Carmen’s piece, though helpful, is written in an American context. Not all situations described in the piece may apply to Ireland*
Driving is an important milestone in the lives of teenagers and young adults. No longer do they have to ask mom and dad for a ride to their friend’s houses. Now they can drive themselves to school, work, and beyond, giving them more freedom over their own schedules. Learning to drive is an opportunity for teens and young adults to earn their independence.
Learning to drive is a long and complicated process, though, and for teens and young adults on the spectrum, learning to drive (and deciding whether to learn) has unique complications.
Autism is a diverse developmental condition that affects 1 in every 59 children in the United States. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), autism is characterised by difficulties with social interactions, repetitive behaviour, and limited interests.
Can People with Autism Drive Safely?
It depends! Some people may have severe symptoms that render them unable to drive, while others may have a little trouble learning to drive, and they may even be safer drivers than the general population.
Many teens and young adults on the spectrum are interested in, and capable of, driving.
- Nearly two-thirds of teens with higher-functioning autism are either interested in or currently driving.
- 1 in 3 people with autism (without an intellectual disability) are licensed by age 21.
- 90% of teens with autism and a learners’ permit get a license within two years
Autistic teens are most likely to drive when they:
- Are full time students
- Plan to attend college
- Have paid work experience
- Have driving goals included in their Individualised Education Plan
- Have parents with experience teaching other teens to drive
In order to drive safely and effectively, several types of skills are needed, including:
Understanding and following rules: adhering to speed limits and right-of-way rules and understanding the consequences for breaking those rules.
Motor skills: controlling the steering wheel, brakes, gas pedal, and turn signals in an effective and timely manner.
Coordination: using hands and feet at the same time.
Planning: navigating without getting lost or confused; knowing when to stop for gas or service.
Focus: paying attention to the road for the whole drive.
Sequencing: knowing the order events should happen in.
Cognitive flexibility: changing plans when the unexpected happens (road closed, snowstorm, etc.).
Prioritizing: filtering out distractions (music, loud noises, bright lights, etc.).
Understanding social cues: knowing whether other drivers will let you drive first at an intersection.
Emotional control: staying calm and responding appropriately to unwanted circumstances (such as an accident, getting pulled over, or being around drivers who aren’t following the rules).
While some common symptoms of autism, such as sensory overload, reduced motor skills, and difficulties with sequencing and controlling emotions, may lead to unsafe driving behaviors, others, such as an insistence to follow the rules, may actually promote safer driving. Of course, autism is unique for every person, so deciding whether or not to drive is a highly individual decision.
Determining Readiness to Drive
So how do you know when you/your teen is ready to drive? It depends on the teen’s capability and eagerness. Conversations about driving should ideally start a year or two before the teen can get their permit, so that families have enough time to add driving goals to the teen’s IEP if necessary. Families should also seek the advice of medical and support professionals.
Here are some questions to consider.
Do you feel you/your teen or young adult consistently demonstrates good judgment and maturity at school, around peers, and at home?
Are you/your teen receptive to constructive criticism and instruction?
Do you/your teen demonstrate knowledge of the rules of the road and other skills taught in driver education classes? If not, do you need specialized instruction or a driving assessment?
Are you/your teen agreeable to practicing driving with a skilled adult prior to driving independently? If so, is there an adult who is willing and able to serve in this important role?
Are there any medical or behavioral conditions (such as significant visual impairment) that may prevent you/your teen from driving safely?
Are there medical interventions that may be needed to ensure safe driving behaviors, such as treatment with ADHD medication if you/your teen has symptoms of ADHD?
What should families do if their teen/young adult seems to have the skills necessary to drive but doesn’t show interest in driving?
Part of this depends on the teen’s plans over the next few years. If they will be commuting to college or work, it might be good to have a conversation about driving with your teen. Ask them why they are opposed to driving and emphasize the tangible benefits of learning to drive, but don’t push them to drive if they still don’t feel ready. On the other hand, if they don’t anticipate having to commute regularly, or they have access to public transportation, it may not be as important that they learn to drive right away.
If driving is not the best option for you/your teen, you should look to secure another method of transportation that will grant as much independence as possible. You can always revisit the conversation of driving if it seems appropriate.
If you’ve decided that you/your teen is ready to drive, it’s time to make a plan to take the permit test. The permit test is a set of written questions about rules of the road and safety.
Here are some tips to prepare for the test:
- Read your state’s driver handbook
- Talk to your family/teen about topics in the handbook, including rules of the road and safety.
- Take a practice permit test, which is available online for every state. Go over what you got wrong and repeat until you feel confident!
- Observe traffic as a passenger and talk to your driver about what you notice.
Learning To Drive
Autistic teens and young adults have a unique learning curve when it comes to learning how to drive. A 2018 study suggests that unlicensed autistic teens may take longer than their peers to master certain elements of driving, such as maintaining an appropriate speed and staying in their lane. As such, it could take them additional months or years to get their license. But once they get licensed, they will likely be able to drive just as well as their peers.
Therefore, it’s important for everyone involved to stay patient and positive throughout the process. Even if the teen ends up not getting a license, learning to drive can still be beneficial for their personal growth.
Here are some tips to make the learning process smooth and rewarding:
CONSIDER USING A DRIVING SIMULATOR.
Driving simulators allow autistic teens to get comfortable with the basic skills and mechanics of driving without worrying about their safety. Some driving simulators can be bought, but they may be expensive. Many universities, such as the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, are developing driving simulators as part of their research on driving and autism. Vanderbilt’s simulator can even evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses and adapt its lessons to allow students to improve specific skills. Getting in touch with your local universities may allow you access to these simulators while saving money.
CHOOSE A DRIVING INSTRUCTOR THAT UNDERSTANDS
YOUR/YOUR TEEN’S NEEDS.
While family members can supplement this role (especially if they have experience teaching other teens how to drive), it is especially helpful for the teen drive with an instructor who is trained to teach teens with special needs. Your school district can help you locate specialized instructors, especially if you/your teen has driving goals in their IEP. Otherwise, reach out to local driving schools and ask about special education programs.
DISCUSS THE TEEN’S LEARNING STYLE AND DRIVING-RELATED CONCERNS.
This is especially helpful if the teen and instructor do not know each other well already. Teens may want to think about their learning style (i.e. if they have a strong preference for written, visual, or auditory learning), as well as any concerns they may have about driving (such as multi-tasking, sensory concerns, or overreacting if something unexpected happens), and be prepared to describe them to their instructor during the first session. If the teen does not provide this information, the instructor should ask about the teen’s learning style and concerns.
START WITH THE BASICS.
Before any driving takes place, teens should know about the basic parts of the car (such as the pedals, steering wheel, and mirrors), and they should know how to adjust the seat, wheel, and mirrors to their comfort level. Once the teen feels ready to drive, find a large, vacant plot land to drive in and get comfortable with accelerating, braking, and steering.
MASTER EACH SKILL BEFORE MOVING ONTO THE NEXT.
On average, autistic teens need more time to master skills and get their licenses. Spending the extra time developing these specific skills is worth it for their growth and safety. In addition to mastering existing skills, it’s important that the teen feels confident driving in familiar areas before they begin applying their skills in new areas. Once they feel fully confident in their existing skills and experience, it will be easier for them to begin learning more advanced skills.
GIVE POSITIVE ENCOURAGEMENT.
As mentioned before, some symptoms of autism can be beneficial for driving. If your teen is good at navigating and following the rules, praise them for it. Additionally, praise your teen for their improvements, no matter how small. By reassuring them that they are making progress, they will be motivated to keep learning.
USE EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES
Instructors will learn what strategies work best for their students as they spend more time together. In the meantime, strategies such as breaking down information into smaller parts, using clear and literal language, writing and drawing, and using physical clues to measure speed and distance work for many people on the spectrum.
USE DRIVING EXPERIENCES AS TEACHABLE MOMENTS.
Real-life driving examples can help explain the importance of various concepts, such as turn signals, following distance, and right-of-way. Don’t use the teen’s experiences too often, though, or they may interpret it as negative criticism and become discouraged. To teach concepts while avoiding excessive criticism, the instructor should use their own experiences as examples.
Some autistic teens may have more difficulty filtering out distractions, such as glare from headlights, a spilled drink, or a favorite song on the radio. Instructors should avoid playing music and talking excessively, especially when the teen is first starting to drive. Once the teen starts driving independently, it may be helpful to place restrictions on phone usage and number of passengers allowed in the car.
DISCUSS HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIOS.
What happens in the event of an accident or a traffic stop? Talk about what the teen should do, including strategies for staying calm if needed, and role-play these scenarios together. It may be helpful to keep written lists of instructions for these scenarios in the car, as well as a note on the dashboard of the car alerting others that the driver has autism and may display specific behaviors.
CONSIDERING HIRING A SPEECH/LANGUAGE PATHOLOGIST
TO TEACH LANGUAGE SKILLS.
SLPs can help with various skills that are essential to driving, including vocabulary, problem-solving, turn-taking, predicting, sequencing, rote memory, and telephone skills.
DO NOT PUSH THE TEEN TO DO ANYTHING THAT THEY ARE NOT COMFORTABLE DOING.
For various reasons, some teens may not want to drive over a certain speed limit, drive in the rain, or drive after dark. Respect their boundaries and focus on building up the skills that they want to master.
Learning to drive is a big endeavor, especially for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. But with time, practice, and patience, many can develop the skills they need to become successful, independent drivers.