Learning to Drive with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, nearly two-thirds of adolescents with higher functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are either interested in or currently driving. Adolescents with ASD who are more likely to drive have paid work experience, are full-time students, plan to attend college, and have parents with experience teaching other teens to drive. One in three autistic adolescents without an intellectual disability get licensed by age 21.
ASD without intellectual impairment 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 in some people on the autism spectrum.
Autism and Driving
Many of these capabilities come into play when driving. Some, such as getting lost in the details of the road or difficulty recognizing the cues of other drivers, may raise the risk for unsafe driving behaviors. Others, such as a vigilance to follow the rules of the road, may promote safer driving behaviors. One study suggests that males with ASD may have slower hazard detection times and difficulties recognizing hazards involving people, while another found that teens with higher functioning ASD crashed less frequently than those in the general teen population.
To determine readiness to drive for their autistic adolescent, 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 special needs. It’s also important to add driving goals to their child’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 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
According to recent research conducted by CHOP published in the journal Autism in Adulthood, specialized driving instructors with experience teaching autistic adolescents to drive also recommend:
- Tap into state-level Vocational Rehabilitation Services to provide financial support for instruction.
- Identify and promote acquisition of independent life skills in diverse domains, including: personal hygiene, health, food preparation, housekeeping, and transportation.
- 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 the learner driver where available. Visit the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website to locate a qualified instructor in your area.
For more helpful information about your autistic adolescent and driving, visit The Center for Autism Research at CHOP.