Learning to drive is often associated with independence, and it can be both an exciting and anxiety-provoking time in your life. If you or your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may be especially cautious about the responsibility it takes to drive due to differences in executive functioning.
But it’s a misconception that autistic people can’t drive. With the right preparation and individualized training, you or your autistic teen may be able to safely drive a vehicle.
Here, we break down what the latest research says about autism and driving, as well as important tips to gauge readiness and for successful training.
Yes, it’s legal for autistic people to drive. Autistic individuals must pass the same requirements needed to obtain a driver’s license in their state as those who are not on the spectrum.
In some cases, it may take longer for autistic individuals to obtain a driver’s license, with one study indicating an
There are no legal restrictions that may prevent an autistic person from obtaining a driver’s license. But there are certain challenges and safety aspects to consider, including reduced motor skills and difficulties with multitasking.
Research suggests that drivers who are autistic may experience the following difficulties:
- challenges with concentrating on own driving while paying attention to what other drivers are doing on the road
- slower detection time for road hazards
- being easily distracted
- becoming too bound by rules
- inability to identify social cues, like tailgating
- nervousness related to comorbidities, like ADHD or anxiety
On the flip side, research also shows that autistic drivers have certain strengths that other drivers may not possess. These include:
- desire to strictly adhere to driving rules
- obeying traffic rules
- limited risk-taking, like speeding
- paying closer attention to their overall driving environment
- being able to remember details and information for long periods of time
Additionally, research suggests that young autistic individuals are less likely to receive traffic tickets and have their licenses suspended than other new drivers. Also, crash risks are similar across new drivers overall.
While driving is an important life skill that can also help support travel for schooling, work, and socialization, your autistic teen should first indicate an interest in driving before you pursue formal lessons. Such engagement can help them retain an interest in their lessons, so they’ll want to keep practicing.
At the same time, it’s never too early to discuss driving with your child’s pediatrician. This way, if your doctor feels you need extra support, you can obtain related therapies before your child reaches driving age.
Another indication of driver readiness is your teen’s current ability to complete other self-care tasks independently. This may include self-hygiene, house chores, and schoolwork.
Questions for your ASD team about driving
Consider discussing the following with your teen’s pediatrician and other members of their ASD team:
- How will I know if my autistic teen is ready to learn how to drive?
- Can you recommend any specific therapies that can help with coordination and executive functioning?
- Are there any communication issues that may interfere with driving?
- Are there any visual or auditory challenges that could impair my child’s driving?
- What are the risks versus benefits of learning to drive right now? Are there any other skills, like bike riding, we should learn first?
- Is there a specific driving school or driving rehabilitation specialist you can recommend?
If you’re looking for specialized training or specific therapies that may help an autistic person learn how to drive, consider the following options:
Occupational therapy (OT)
Traditionally, OT is used in autism to help with daily life skills, fine and gross motor skills, social skills, and other important aspects of your daily routine. Such abilities could also help improve your ability to drive a car.
If you currently work with an occupational therapist, talk with them about your goals for driving so they can help during your therapy sessions. If you don’t currently attend OT, ask your primary care doctor for a referral.
Driving schools and instructors
While some public schools offer driving classes for teens, additional training from an outside driving school can also help. Ask a prospective driving school if they have licensed driving instructors experienced with teaching autistic drivers or with driving rehabilitation specialists.
If you or an autistic loved one is learning how to drive, consider the following tips to help you succeed:
- Practice as much as possible, including both parent-supervised and formal driving instructor-led lessons.
- Break down each skill into small parts.
- Use repetition for each driving lesson.
- Consider using written, verbal, or visual scripts prior to each drive to help your learner commit the steps to memory.
- Help your learner practice driving in different types of weather and at night.
- Prepare your young driver for unexpected scenarios, like how to pull over a vehicle safely due to accidents, tire changes, or interactions with police officers.
With long-term preparation and training, autistic people can successfully drive a car and obtain their driver’s licenses.
While certain challenges with executive functioning and communication may affect some individuals learning to drive, autistic individuals also have strengths some of their peers don’t have, including better adherence to the driving process and the rules of the road.
If you or your autistic child is thinking about learning how to drive, don’t wait to talk with your ASD team. In addition to formal driving schools, ASD professionals can also provide therapies that can help prepare you for driving safety and success.