Getting behind the wheel of a car is a right of passage for many teenagers, but for high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) this task may prove particularly difficult. Along with the impulsivity, inexperience, and other traits of adolescence and young adulthood that can make driving a challenge, an individual with ASD may find him- or herself struggling with potential obstacles posed by autism itself.
Can he or she quickly intuit and react to the “big picture” of any given driving situation? Can he or she interpret and respond to the actions, attitudes, or intentions of other drivers? Can he or she keep calm, neither overly anxious nor angry? Can he or she avoid “zoning out”?
Research in the area of mobility of individuals with other disabilities, or of the elderly, shows that driving is an important aspect of community living and self-identity, enhancing the independence so key to physical and emotional health.
When it comes to sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time, a young person with ASD faces all the same issues a typically developing adolescent does, as well as additional difficulties posed by ASD. There are definitely some aspects of driving that he or she may need special help to master.
IMITATION, COORDINATION, AND PLANNING THE NEXT MOVE
It often has been observed that individuals with ASD have a difficult time copying others’ gestures or movements. Clumsiness or problems with coordination have long been noted, especially in people with Asperger’s syndrome.
People with ASD can find it hard to plan all the steps to carry out an action from a to z all at once. Instead, they may do this in smaller, less global steps.
Taking all of the above into account, we may speculate that individuals with ASD will need some extra help learning the skills necessary to drive. There is not yet research on what techniques are ideal, but it is likely that breaking down driving skills into component parts and allowing more time than the typical beginner might need to master them will be required.
SEEING THE “BIG PICTURE”
Studies show that one of the biggest strengths for many with ASD is attention to detail. What is more of a challenge is grasping the “gist” of a situation. In fact, according to the weak central coherence theory many individuals with ASD tend to focus on details rather than the overall meaning of information. An ability to see the bigger picture is important to quick and accurate decision making in tasks such as driving.
For example, an individual driving a car over a winding road, approaching a bridge, in the pouring rain on a winter’s night, with the silhouette of a pedestrian emerging from the shoulder up ahead, may be required to sort through the relevant details — darkness, a winding roadway, a bridge where water tends to freeze first, the pedestrian’s body language (is he about to step out onto the road?) – in order to arrive at a decision to proceed more slowly than the posted speed limit.
Exploring this aspect of ASD is important if we are to understand how possible interventions may work in various situations, such as learning to drive. It makes sense that identifying and perhaps teaching visual strategies to individuals with ASD could ultimately promote independence and participation in the community.
THE “BODY LANGUAGE” OF TRAFFIC
Traffic has its own “body language.” A car with a confused elderly driver at the wheel may move slowly, while a car driven by someone intoxicated may move at a high rate of speed before the driver regains control. A tailgating car may indicate impatience in the driver, irritation that the car in front is traveling at the speed limit in the fast lane, disapproval of a political bumper sticker, an overall aggressive attitude, or simply a lack of courtesy. Experienced drivers can pick up on the anger, upset, aggressiveness, or confusion of other drivers. They usually can recognize when a car is about to turn or change lanes, even when the driver doesn’t use a turn signal. Recognizing these and other subtle traffic behaviors becomes second nature, and plays a key role in how expert drivers respond during emergencies.
How do novice drivers become expert drivers? At what point do they internalize this important skill of “reading” other vehicles and drivers? Can these skills be broken down and taught to an individual with ASD, much as they might be taught about human body language or personal space? Researchers are beginning to explore these and related questions.
STAYING COOL AND FOCUSED
Additional concerns often raised as a family thinks about whether their child with ASD is ready to drive are emotional regulation and the ability to focus. Some individuals with ASD can be irritable, anxious, or have meltdowns. Some individuals have difficulty maintaining attention. Quite a few have been diagnosed with anxiety, attention deficit, or other issues in addition to their ASD, while others suffer from seizures. Any of these issues may impact the ability to drive. Furthermore, it is clear that some individuals may be taking medications that could interfere with that ability.
If a person with ASD cannot keep his focus on the road, or stay calm enough to drive responsibly, he may not be ready. On the other hand, if he is able to stay calm and focused, whether thanks to treatment or simply growing maturity, driving may be a real possibility.
People with ASD may have one extraordinary strength when it comes to driving: They are often sticklers for rules and regulations, and may obey traffic laws better than typical drivers.
RESEARCH IN THE FUTURE, ADULTS IN THE NOW
Society has few, if any, scientifically based interventions to offer them as they consider learning to drive. Much of today’s research focuses on early interventions that will be critical for the future of infants and young children with ASD, but research that addresses critical life skills in adolescence and adulthood also is needed. There are vast numbers of young people growing up to join the already large number of adults with ASD.
At the same time, researchers are beginning to address issues faced by adults with ASD, including how to help them learn to drive. The researchers hope to learn enough to develop guidelines to help families decide whether their child is ready to drive, as well as educational tools to support families of teens or young adults with ASDs during the learning-to-drive process.
Hopefully, future teens with ASD and their families will have much more information and many more resources available as they approach this and other important milestones on the path to adulthood.