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Driving a Car With Autism: Understanding How it Can be Different

teen boy behind the wheel

By Anita Lesko, BSN, RN, MS, CRNA, CAS, (and on the autism spectrum)

For some teenagers, getting a driver’s license might symbolize their freedom and new life as an adult. But not every teenager counts the days until they get their driver’s license. I learned to drive in high school along with the rest of my classmates.

At that time in my life, I didn’t know I’m autistic. What I did know, however, was that I felt scared and instinctively knew I wasn’t ready to drive.

Understanding the Difference Between Written Traffic Rules and Applying them for Someone with Autism

I did great on the written exam. Being behind the wheel out on the road with the instructor was a different story.

There was too much going on that I felt like I’d simply shut down. I couldn’t determine the distance of other vehicles, especially when trying to pull out onto a main road, nor their speed.

The instructor would tell me I had plenty of time to pull out onto the road, but I’d just sit there thinking the oncoming traffic was too close and going too fast.

Out on the main roads, I’d get fixated on one thing, like someone tailgating me.

How Complicated Driving Can Be When Someone Perceives the World Differently

Keeping track of everything going on around me, all the others vehicles, traffic lights, signs, pedestrians, handling the car itself, was all just too much for me to cope with. In the back of my mind was the ever-present realization that operating a vehicle on the road could possibly result in an accident, either fatal to myself or others as well.

This type of situation is one where it might be important to have someone who is a Certified Autism Specialist™ present to make sure that they can better understand what the person with autism is going through. Any time someone is in a car it is important to make sure that everyone is as safe as possible, and this would go a long way for safety.

Driving is a Huge Responsibility and Not for Everyone

Driving is a huge responsibility that one must be ready to handle. After I got my driver’s license, I reluctantly drove for a few months. I then made the decision it was too overwhelming to me, so I stopped driving.

My mom became my official chauffeur. My mom was not the least bit upset at my decision. She sensed my intuition was correct. My classmates found this all quite hilarious and was great fodder for even more bullying. None of that was going to motivate me to drive. I simply knew I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t start driving again until I was 40. I still didn’t know I was autistic, but I felt ready to take to the roads again. So, as if I’d been doing it my whole life, I began to drive again. The more I drove, the more confident I became. I follow all the rules of the road and obey all the traffic laws.

driving a car can be challenging for a person with autism

Why Might Someone on the Autism Spectrum be Afraid to Drive?

There are reasons why an individual with autism might be fearful of driving. One aspect is that driving is somewhat of a social function — you have to read the driving scene. There are also the risks of not being able to stay focused while driving, handling the constant changes that occur while driving, and dealing with the unexpected. It’s nonstop multi-tasking in a moving object, surrounded by other moving objects, possibly at high rates of speed.

Learning to Drive Might Look Different for Someone with Autism

When learning to drive, it is imperative that everything be broken down into small tasks. Then, once comfortable, put all the pieces together. It might take longer for someone to learn to drive, but a person should be able to take as long as they need to learn.

The main goal is safety. It can be challenging for a person with autism to learn that others on the road might not follow all the rules like they do. Teaching drivers to expect the unexpected while driving is an abstract concept, yet a critical one.

Here’s some tips for helping someone on the autism spectrum learn to drive:

  • Allow frequent breaks during driving lessons to let each piece of information to settle in and not overwhelm the individual.
  • Drive on familiar routes until fully comfortable. New routes can be overwhelming and should be avoided until the person is totally comfortable handling the vehicle and dealing with traffic in familiar surroundings. This is especially the case in bigger cities with more complex intersections and more traffic.
  • Teach the driver to remain calm when others break the rules of the road.
  • Explain what road rage is and how to avoid instigating another driver.
  • Teach them that playing music while driving might be a distraction.

empty parking lot to practice driving

Safe Practice Tip: Use empty parking lots on early Sunday mornings as areas to do simulations of driving and becoming at ease with being behind the wheel. Empty parking lots are also great places to have the person learn how to drive and operate windshield wipers, the air conditioner, defrost, etc., while in motion. And of course, practicing parking and parallel parking.

Lastly, there’s the possibility of some interaction with law enforcement for whatever reason. Talk about how to interact with a police officer or other such person. Ideally, the police officer will have had some level of autism training, but this is usually not the case. That means it is important for the person with autism to know how to communicate to the best of their ability in these situations.

If an individual with autism is fearful of getting behind the wheel, parents and family members need to understand the complexity of this matter. Don’t ever try to force him or her to learn to drive. Instead, offer your support, telling them you will be happy to help them whenever they feel ready to get their driver’s license and start driving. They will know when they are ready to take that big step.

Helping My Husband (Also on the Autism Spectrum) get his License

Last November, a year ago, I helped my autistic husband Abraham get his driver’s license. I came up with a plan that worked beautifully! As a person with autism, I know how we tend to thrive on routine and do best when in our comfort zone. So here’s what I had him do in order to build that comfort zone behind the wheel.

Repetition in Safe Circumstances to Build Confidence is the Key to Success

First, we went outside to my truck in the driveway. I got in the passenger’s seat, and Abraham in the driver’s seat. I told him to first buckle up his seat belt, then put the key in the ignition and start it up. Once started, I told him to shut it off and just sit there a bit. I then told him to get out, go back to house and come out and do it all over, 10 times!

So he did it all, 10 times.

It took awhile, but by the 10th time, he did it so routinely as if he’d been doing it for years.

Once he was totally comfortable with that, I had him back up the truck in the driveway between all the trees, then go forward to the starting point. Again, 10 times.

Then I had him go out the driveway to the subdivision across the street, drive throughout the quiet, meandering road there, then return to our driveway. Again, yes, 10 times.

Then I had him go down the road to a different subdivision and drive around there 10 times. I had him take breaks in between as not to overload him. We started the whole process at 8 a.m. By 1 p.m, we were ready to venture out on some quiet, familiar roads where there was minimal traffic. He drove for an hour, then back home.

I then taught him to parallel park 10 times, of course!

Ready to Drive Around Town on Day 2

The next day, he felt ready to drive all around town, graduating to roads where he had to go 45 miles per hour to maintain pace with everyone.

Of course, prior to starting all the “hands-on,” he had memorized the driver’s manual. One thing he had problems with was stop signs.

He thought you actually have to stop exactly where the stop sign is placed, which is often far enough from the intersection you cannot see it clearly. He was taking it literally, so he’d stop right at the sign. I explained that if you really stop right at the sign, most likely you won’t be able to get a clear visual of the intersection. I showed him how you stop at the stop sign (or in front of the painted lines in the street nearby) but slowly ease up to where you can clearly see the intersection and all oncoming traffic.

Then he finally understood. On the third day, he took his driver’s test and got his driver’s license.

The Importance of Feeling Comfortable Before Driving

You must first feel totally comfortable sitting in the driver’s seat, learning how to put on the blinker, windshield wipers, A/C or heat, etc. Start out slow and just be calm. Remember to take many breaks. There is no rush.

After that it is important to get used to evaluating the environment effectively when driving. Make sure to take this slowly as well, as it is important to build confidence slowly to avoid possibly overwhelming situations.

The one thing to always remember is safety is the most important thing!

Learn how to become a Certified Autism Specialist™

Learn More About Becoming a Certified Autism Specialist

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