Learning to drive can be a challenge for anyone, but the reward of freedom, mobility, and independence can be life-changing. For individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there can be additional challenges, but the resulting freedom and mobility can be just as empowering.
While over 70% of high school seniors have a driver’s license, this number drops to around 30% for those diagnosed with a form of autism.
In some cases, drivers with autism may feel overwhelmed by the many tasks, rules, and considerations involved in driving. For others, concern from parents or loved ones may keep them from learning, while the young adult is ready to drive and eager to learn the skills of the road.
In this article, we’ll discuss autism and how it can affect your child’s driving abilities. Then we’ll touch on some ways your child can prepare to drive with the help of a driving specialist, and reach a new level of mobility and independence.
An Overview of Autism
Autism was once considered a very rare medical condition, affecting only 1 in 2500 children. However, changes in how autism is defined, as well as increased awareness and emphasis on screening children, have increased that number to around 1 in 68 according to the Center for Disease Control.
This does not necessarily mean that there are more people with autism than there have been in the past, simply that it is being diagnosed and treated far more frequently.
Also, autism used to be considered one of several separate disorders, including Asperger’s and PDD (pervasive developmental disorder). However, in recent years, these various disorders have been grouped into what are known as autism spectrum disorders.
People with some form of ASD can range from very minimal intellectual impairments to more severe handicaps, but there are a few characteristics these disorders tend to have in common, which include:
- Difficulty communicating or behaving appropriately during social interaction
- Delays or deficits in speech and communication
- Repetitive behaviors
- Struggles with executive function (regulating behavior, reactions, self-control, organization, etc.)
The Levels of Autism
People with autism tend to experience complications at one of three general levels.
Individuals with level 1 autism are generally high functioning and independent, but may have some difficulty socializing, adapting to change, or staying organized.
Individuals with level 2 autism tend to face more difficulty with communication, adaptability, and behavioral issues, and can often have very narrow interests. These individuals also tend to require more support in general than those with level 1 autism.
Individuals with level 3 autism, can struggle with limited to nonexistent communication skills, extreme emotional reactions to changes in their environment and routine, and difficulty maintaining focus and attention. People with level 3 autism tend to require high levels of support to learn basic life skills.
How Can Autism Affect My Child’s Ability to Drive?
As ASD diagnoses exist on a broad spectrum, every person will have a unique set of symptoms that can affect driving safety.
Individuals with more intermediate complications of autism may struggle with maintaining focus and concentration, and may also have difficulty with the quick problem solving and judgment required on the road. This can be especially prominent in adverse conditions, like at night or in inclement weather.
Finally, for those with more severe complications of autism, it may be very difficult or impossible to manage the rules of the road, stay focused with a number of distractions, and stay focused in what can be a highly stressful and unpredictable environment at times.
What Can I Do to Prepare My Child with ASD to Drive?
Like with any child, the first step is to have a conversation about driving, including discussing why they might want to drive and covering the rules of the road, the challenges and responsibilities of operating a vehicle, and some considerations they’ll have to deal with while driving.
It can be helpful to have this conversation while you’re driving with them, to familiarize them with the decisions that they might have to make while driving and get them used to the environment. Point out common landmarks, and help them start to work on navigation.
If your child has trouble with communication, reacting appropriately, or decision making, take time to engage them in the decision-making process on the road, asking them what they might do to help them get used to the rigors of driving.
The Early Learning Process
You know your child and their situation the best, but there are a few general tips that can help. During the learning process, let them learn at their own pace, and help them build the consistent habits that will lead to safe driving.
Even starting the car can be broken up into smaller steps like selecting the key, putting it in the ignition, turning it until they heard the engine turn over, and then letting go. Reinforcing these safe habits can feel slow at times, but they’re the foundation of safe driving skills.
Gaming as Training | True or False
Some people suggest that the use of video games and driving simulators can be valuable in teaching children with autism to drive, but the research shows mixed results.
Though video games can help your child with their basic mechanics, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination, they fail to teach some key skills like situational awareness and visually scanning their environment.
In summary, there’s no replacement for on-the-road training.
Choosing a Vehicle for Success
Modern vehicle modifications like backup sensors and a collision-avoidance system can help provide an extra level of safety for any distracted driver, which can be valuable if your child suffers from lapses in concentration.
A GPS is another possibility that can help keep them oriented (as long as it’s not a distraction) but overall shouldn’t replace the key skill of being able to navigate on their own.
Like with any vehicle, the goal here is to keep your child as safe as possible. However, it’s worth noting that these features shouldn’t be expected to replace proper skills on the road.
How Do I Know if My Child with Autism Will Be Able to Drive?
Everyone with an ASD is unique, so there’s no one set of rules that determines whether or not they’ll be comfortable behind the wheel. However, there are a few considerations you can start with.
- Can they adapt quickly to changes, or do these situations cause them distress?
- Do they have the complex motor skills needed to safely operate a vehicle?
- Can they stay focused enough to make quick, appropriate decisions in a distracting environment?
- Can they hold that focus for a long period of time?
- Do they have enough situational awareness to notice potential obstacles and effectively react?
- Do they have difficulty multi-tasking?
These questions can be difficult to answer without experience behind the wheel, which is why we recommend that your child works with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist.
These driving experts can work one-on-one with your child to understand their unique situations, their skills, and how they can take steps to start driving safely and confidently.
What Next Street Looks for When Assessing People with Autism for Driving
Our CDRSs work with each child on an individual basis to determine their unique situation and challenges.
Based on this comprehensive driving evaluation, and if possible a behind-the-wheel driving assessment, these clinical driving experts will be able to evaluate your child’s physical, visual, and mental ability to drive and recommend some next steps.
Possible Driving Outcomes
For many autistic drivers, the biggest hurdle is simply learning to drive. Your child may just take a bit longer to learn the concepts and skills, but after a gradual learning process can become just as responsible and safe on the road as any other driver.
Drive with Restrictions
In some cases, teens with autism or ASD may be capable drivers in some situations, like driving to work or to the store, but may struggle with high-stress environments like freeways, night driving, or driving in inclement weather.
In these cases, our experts will recommend restricting your child’s driving to situations in which they’re comfortable
Unable to Drive
For some people with ASD, a combination of physical and cognitive challenges may make it unsafe to operate a motor vehicle. However, this does not mean that they’re unable to experience mobility and independence.
In these cases, our CDRSs can work with you and your child to develop an alternative transportation plan, often involving family members, rideshare services, or specialty transit companies.
Take the Next Step
No matter what your child’s unique situation, our goal at Next Street is to provide everyone with as much mobility, independence, and freedom as possible while staying safe and comfortable, whether behind the wheel or through some other form of transportation.
If you have a child with ASD and they are reaching the age where they’d like to drive, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.