Learning to Drive with Autism
According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), two-thirds of 15- to 18-year-old autistic adolescents without intellectual disability are currently driving or planning to drive, and 1 in 3 autistic individuals without intellectual disability get licensed by age 21.
Autism is characterized by subtle impairments in social interaction, communication, motor skills and coordination and a difficulty in regulating emotions. Attention and a set of skills known as “executive functioning”-- related to processing and prioritizing information -- can also be affected.
Many of these capabilities come into play with young autistic drivers. A recent collaborative study from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention and the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), published by the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, identified clear strengths and a series of specific challenges autistic adolescents experience while learning to drive. The path to becoming licensed may be longer but is achievable with rigorous tailored instruction.
Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 17 specialized driving instructors who were trained as occupational therapists (OT), driving rehabilitation specialists (DRS), or licensed driving instructors (LDI) with experience teaching autistic adolescents to drive:
- Challenges included being overly rule-bound, becoming easily distracted, and having difficulty integrating what other drivers are doing with their own hand-eye-foot coordination required to drive. Instructors believed many of these challenges could be overcome through careful skill-building instruction over a prolonged period of time.
- Strengths included following the rules of the road, paying close attention to their driving environment, and limiting risk-taking. Instructors believed these clear strengths help students become competent drivers.
Another study suggests that autistic males may have slower hazard detection times and difficulties recognizing hazards including pedestrians, while another recent study conducted at CHOP found that young autistic drivers have a similar crash risk but are much less likely to have their license suspended or to receive a traffic violation than other newly licensed drivers.
To determine readiness to drive for their autistic adolescents and young adults, families should first schedule a doctor’s appointment to address any concerns, such as communication or cognition issues. They may also want to seek the advice of a behavior therapist, an occupational therapist who specializes in driving, or a driver rehabilitation specialist who has training in working with individuals with neurodevelopmental differences. It’s also important to add driving goals to their adolescent's individualized education plan (IEA) and to follow up with school personnel.
To help guide families through the learning-to-drive process, parents of autistic adolescents and young adults who have supervised their practice driving recommend:
- 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
Specialized driving instructors with experience teaching autistic adolescents and young adults to drive also recommend:
- Tap into state-level Vocational Rehabilitation Services to provide financial support for instruction.
- Consider treatment for ADHD symptoms, including impulsivity and inattention, if needed.
- Promote the development of life skills, such as personal hygiene, housekeeping, and food preparation, as well as transportation skills, such as bicycling and taking public transit, before beginning the learning-to-drive process and to successfully transition to adulthood.
- Provide plenty of parent-supervised practice driving in partnership with professional driving instruction: The TeenDrivingPlan Practice Guide offers evidence-based instruction in six driving environments, at night, and in inclement weather. Learn how to choose a driving school.
- Offer individualization of instruction tailored to the particular needs of your young autistic driver where available. Visit the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website to locate a qualified instructor in your area.
- Offer support in preparing for driving-related experiences outside the vehicle, such as changing a tire or interacting with law enforcement.
For more helpful information about helping your autistic adolescent or young adult stay mobile and connected, read this issue of Autism Dispatch, a newsletter from The Center for Autism Research at CHOP.
Newly licensed autistic drivers have similar to lower crash rates but are much less likely to have their license suspended or to receive a traffic violation than their non-autistic peers.