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Driving with Autism: Advice for Learning to Drive When on the Spectrum

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Autism Awareness Autistic Driver Disabled Spectrum Car License Operation Tips Teen

It’s possible for those with autism to obtain their driver’s licenses
Photo: Becky Wetherington via cc/Flickr

For many people, certain freedoms and abilities come easily and thus are often taken for granted. For instance, driving a car can quickly become second nature for many adults, but for others, it requires more effort to master.

If you or someone you know is on the autism spectrum, the skills necessary for operating a motor vehicle might not come easily for them. Driving a vehicle might also pose challenges that it typically wouldn’t for the majority of people.

As integral to mobility and self-identity as driving oneself in a car is, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor to master.

Don’t Panic: Read advice on what to do if you’ve been in a car accident

Challenges and Advice for Autistic Drivers-in-Training

According to a recent study in the Autism journal, only 34% of those with autism in New Jersey obtained a driver’s license by age 21. A Drexel University study echoes that adults with autism earn their licenses at later ages than most people. Those on the spectrum struggle with mastering visual-spacial discernment, controlling anxiety, and the ability to think and react quickly behind the wheel. They are sometimes too focused on minutiae to see the big picture.

While driving is admittedly a stressful activity that isn’t suited to everyone, simply being on the spectrum doesn’t automatically disqualify a person from earning a driver’s license. Many drivers with autism obtain an intermediate driver’s license, which allows them to legally drive under certain constraints, such as the time of day and number of people in the vehicle. Those on the spectrum might have tendencies which could help them be safe drivers, such as their attention to detail and fervent adherence to rules.

teen driver autism spectrum

Experts in autism empowerment suggest attempting the following when teaching someone with autism how to drive:

  • Spend extra time physically practicing in safe environments, even if it takes years. Follow familiar routes when learning basic skills.
  • Master each skill before adding a new one (e.g. braking, turning, traffic lights, changing lanes) when learning multi-tasking.
  • Limit distractions in the vehicle. Make sure the seat is comfortable and adjusted, then leave it there. Don’t let the car’s interior get too hot or sunny.
  • Find and acknowledge the person’s limits (e.g. highway driving, driving in the rain, the size of car).
  • When not in the car, practice memorization, scenario solving, vocabulary, etc.
  • Parents or guardians who help autistic teens become comfortable and empowered learning to drive at a young age have a higher chance of success.
  • It’s important to attend a driving school with instructors that are aware of the specialized education needs of autistic learners and thus offer personalized and/or specially structured training.

Ultimately, the ability to drive should be evaluated on an individual basis with the guidance of personal doctors, care providers, and parents. Autism affects everyone differently, after all. One day though, it’s possible that self-driving vehicles will revolutionize the challenge of driving with autism and open new opportunities for mobility.

The Future Ahead: Self-driving car technology that’s in the works…

Resources: Interactive Autism Network, Aspergers 101, Autism Speaks, Autism Spectrum