For the average person, learning to drive can be both an intimidating and a liberating experience. This can be even more true for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 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, the individual may feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of tasks and rules involved in driving and choose to postpone learning. For others, it may be their parents and guardians who are concerned about their abilities to safely drive and obey the laws, while the child sits home eager to get out on the road and experience the independence that they see their peers enjoying.
At The Next Street, we believe that every person should have the opportunity to try to learn to drive. We have developed a program specifically for people with ASD to determine and develop their driving skills and hopefully gain the independence that comes with a driver's license. There is no one size fits all solution for driving with ASD, so we work with each individual to develop the program that is best for them.
Stimuli can be difficult to take on. Loud noises like sirens or screaching brakes, the feeling of the seatbelt against your skin and even the radio can cause discomfort and make driving challenging.
Following the rules is important, and some people with ASD become offended when others don't follow the rules. Other drivers that exceed the speed limit or don't come to complete stops can lead to a rage incident for the driver with ASD.
Physical abilities and coordination are a big part of driving. It will be important to help a person with ASD develop skills to improve reaction time and coordination.
You can start by talking about driving with your child. Discuss the rules of the road, the way to operate a vehicle, and the challenges they might encounter while learning. Tell stories of your experiences or mention specific scenarios and talk about the appropriate way to react. Share with them about the unofficial non-verbal communication that happens between drivers, such as flashing lights, using the horn, and gesturing.
Take them on a drive with you and have these discussions on the road so they can connect your words with your actions and the environment around them. Ask them questions about the things they see and point things out to them to try and promote a sense of awareness. Some have suggested using video games and driving simulators to help teach autistic children driving skills. While this can be helpful regarding the basic mechanics of steering, braking and accelerating if they use a steering wheel and pedals instead of a game controller, it may not be as beneficial as some hope.
It is important to note that you should never force your child into driving. They will begin inquiring when they are interested and ready. Until then, you can mention it as an option, but never force them into the driver seat. Wait until they are asking you for this next step so that it is done on their terms.
Everyone with an ASD is unique. To guide yourself in this decision, it can be helpful to ask yourself some questions about your child.
Our program for Driving With Autism includes a clinical evaluation by a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist. They will assess your child and help you determine if they are ready to drive, as well as help you develop a plan to reach their goal.
We created a program in collaboration with our Driver Rehab Services, our New Driver Training and the Hospital for Special Care that addresses the specific need of new drivers with ASD. The program incorporates medical evaluations, needed therapies and a custom tailored driver training program to help your young adult achieve their goals.
We work with each patient on an individual basis to determine what may be needed for them to learn to drive. We evaluate the patient’s cognitive functions and reaction speed, as well as assess vision and physical health. Our evaluations seek to assure that any person is safe to actually get behind the wheel. We will conclude the evaluation with a written report explaining the next recommended steps. This will give you either the confidence to begin driving or a road map of therapy to gain that confidence in time.