Can Autistic People Drive? Here’s The Answer 2023
Driving is a complex task that requires visual, cognitive, physical, and perceptual skills. People with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, may experience challenges in executive functioning, motor coordination, and other skills necessary for driving. Because of this, many people question, “Can autistic people drive?”
In short, yes.
Although people with autism may face certain difficulties that affect their driving skills, with proper training and support, many are able to drive safely on their own with confidence. In addition, exercises for autism and working closely with an occupational therapist can also help.
This article discusses autism and driving, including challenges and tips for autistic individuals who are interested in driving.
Can Autistic People Drive Like Their Peers?
Yes, autistic people can drive like their peers. With the appropriate training and support, many autistic individuals can obtain their driver’s licenses and safely drive. However, they may face additional challenges related to social interaction, communication, and executive functioning. It is important for autistic drivers to be aware of their strengths as well as limitations and work closely with their ASD team to develop personalized strategies to become skilled, independent drivers.
What Is Autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that can cause challenges in social interaction, communication, behavior, and learning. While the primary cause of ASD is yet to be determined, evidence suggests a combination of genetic and environmental factors may cause it.
Because it is a spectrum disorder, there is a wide range in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. For example, some may be nonverbal and need additional help performing day-to-day tasks, while others with high-functioning autism may be highly verbal and can live independently.
While there is no cure for the disorder, there are many services, programs, and other treatments for autism to help those with the condition maximize their potential.
Why Autism May Make It Difficult To Drive
Individuals with autism often experience challenges with social interaction and communication that are related to executive functioning deficits impacting working memory, attention, planning, motor coordination, mental flexibility, and visual perception.
In particular, research suggests that people with autism may experience the following challenges when learning to drive safely:
- Poor concentration and staying focused.
- Difficulty interpreting the driving actions of others.
- Difficulty performing complex driving functions that require multi-tasking, such as merging and using roundabouts.
- Poor confidence or overconfidence.
- Difficulty obeying traffic rules, such as maintaining a safe speed.
- Slow reaction time to traffic hazards or traffic lights.
While there is some evidence that autistic drivers may be at a greater risk for motor vehicle crashes, a 2021 observational study found they may have similar or lower rates of adverse driving outcomess as non-autistic drivers.
The study found that autistic drivers had a lower monthly average of crashes, moving violations, and suspensions than other drivers.
However, young autistic drivers involved in accidents were more likely to crash while making left or U-turns and failing to yield to another vehicle or pedestrian.
The study’s authors called for further additional on-the-road training for autistic drivers with a particular focus on navigating turns and interacting safely with other vehicles and pedestrians.
Is It Legal For Autistic People To Drive?
Yes. It is 100% legal for autistic people to drive. Despite their high interest in driving independently, only one out of threes autistic adolescents obtain a driver’s license to drive independently by their 21st birthday.
Autistic individuals must undergo the same testing and fulfill the driving requirements mandated by their state or country, just like their non-autistic peers.
However, learner drivers on the spectrum typically require more training sessionss for a longer duration focusing on tactical skills. They also may have to take the driving test more times in order to acquire a driver’s license.
Despite these challenges, autistic individuals can become skilled and safe drivers with the right training and support.
Depending on the state, individuals on the autism spectrum may be eligible for certain accommodations regarding driving. This can include obtaining a restricted licenses that includes a notice indicating their health condition, which may affect their ability to communicate with law enforcement officers.
This may help protect young adults on the autism spectrum from being misunderstood during a traffic stop.
How To Know If An Autistic Person Is Ready To Drive
There is no set rule to determine when an autistic person is ready to drive. While some autistic teens feel ready to drive as soon as they are of driving age, others may wait several years. Furthermore, some may choose never to pursue driving at all — which is perfectly fine.
When introducing the concept of driving to teens and young adults with autism, it is important to allow them the space and time to determine when they are ready and comfortable to pursue driving.
Some driver readiness indicators to think about include your child’s ability to:
- Follow the rules.
- Complete tasks, including homework, chores, and self-care activities.
- Regulate and manage emotions.
- Maintain and sustain attention.
It’s also a good idea to have a conversation with a healthcare provider or autism support team when your child reaches driving age to clear your autistic teen from driving.
Helpful Tips For Autistic People Who Drive
Once your autistic child is ready to practice driving, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind.
- Start slow. Allow them to sit in the driver’s seat and become comfortable before starting the car.
- Practice exercises for autism to help them engage with and navigate the environment.
- Consider placing an autistic car decal on the vehicle to indicate that the driver may have communication differences.
- Break information into smaller parts to avoid overwhelming your teen and let the information settle in.
- Practice often in familiar, low-traffic areas to build confidence.
- Avoid showing signs of impatience or frustration.
- Once your driver is comfortable with basic driving skills, practice driving at night and in different weather scenarios, such as rain or fog.
- Slowly introduce high-traffic areas into their driving lesson.
- Prepare ahead of time by discussing different driving scenarios and potential challenges.
- Seek out additional resources and professional help for advice on teaching strategies.
Additional Therapy And Training Options
In addition to the standard driver’s education class required for a written test, autistic individuals can benefit from additional education and therapy.
Many schools offer driving classes for students. However, your autistic teen may benefit from training at a specific driving school with a team of driving instructors who are trained to work with individuals on the spectrum. Challenges specialized instructors are trained to deal with include mental inflexibility, distractibility, problems with cues from other drivers, and motor coordination.
One 2021 study found that driving instruction provided by an occupational therapist or licensed driving instructor with specialized training seems to be most beneficial for helping autistic individuals develop the necessary skills to become confident, safe drivers.
Driving with autism can be difficult due to potential challenges in social interaction and executive function. However, with specialized training, support, and persistence, many individuals with autism can obtain driver’s licenses and become confident, safe drivers.
Talk with your ASD team to weigh the risks versus benefits and determine your child’s driving readiness.
+ 6 sources
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- CDC (2023). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) . [online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html.
- Wilson, N.J., Lee, H.C., Vaz, S., Vindin, P. and Cordier, R. (2018). Scoping Review of the Driving Behaviour of and Driver Training Programs for People on the Autism Spectrum. Behavioural Neurology, [online] 2018, pp.1–17. doi:https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/6842306.
- Curry, A.E., Metzger, K.B., Carey, M.E., Sartin, E.B., Huang, P. and Yerys, B.E. (2021). Comparison of Motor Vehicle Crashes, Traffic Violations, and License Suspensions Between Autistic and Non-Autistic Adolescent and Young Adult Drivers. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, [online] 60(7), pp.913–923. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2021.01.001.
- McCraw, Steven , and Temple Grandin. “Driving with Autism Brochure.” Gov.texas.gov, c/uploads/files/organization/disabilities/Driving-with-Autism-Brochure.pdf.
- Myers, R.K., Carey, M.E., Bonsu, J.M., Yerys, B.E., Mollen, C.J. and Curry, A.E. (2021). Behind the Wheel: Specialized Driving Instructors’ Experiences and Strategies for Teaching Autistic Adolescents to Drive. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, [online] 75(3). doi:https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2021.043406.