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Your Guide to Autism and Driving

For those on the autism spectrum, driving is a big step when becoming a teen or young adult. As one of the major choices someone with autism makes as they transition into adulthood, driving helps open up several doors, including employment opportunities, access to community activities, and the development of social relationships.
While there are no laws associated with autism and driving, safety is your number one concern. Learning how to drive can be a stressful experience for anyone. However, for those with autism, trying to adapt to change can be particularly challenging.

Can Adults with Autism Drive a Car?

The answer to this question is yes, of course!

Although the stats vary from state to state, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, nearly two-thirds of adolescents with high-functioning autism currently drive or would like to drive. One in three adolescents with autism who do not have an intellectual disability get their license by the age of 21, and most obtain their intermediate driver’s license by the age of 17.

So, adults with autism can drive a car, but learning to do so can be hard.

Common symptoms of autism include motor coordination challenges, delayed decision-making skills, and issues surrounding higher-level thinking skills, such as multitasking. Another major concern is the ability to communicate with others, both verbally and nonverbally. This can create challenges when trying to read signs. Although a message may communicate what a driver should do, the message may not be clear to someone with autism. The same is true when drivers come to a four-way stop at the same time. If another driver waves your loved one to go, they may not accurately interpret that nonverbal cue.

The most important thing to remember is that each individual with autism is unique. This means that the potential for independent driving will vary significantly. While some can learn to drive quickly, others take longer to become comfortable enough to drive safely on their own. In other cases, medical complications interfere with one’s ability to become a safe driver. In this case, it’s important to teach your child how to navigate public transportation with confidence.

Overall, challenges that individuals with autism face that may impact their driving include impairments in:

  • Communication
  • Motor skills
  • Social interactions
  • Emotional regulation
  • Executive functioning
  • Coordination
  • Attention

Learning to Drive with Autism

Driving is an immense responsibility. Each time you get on the road, you need to consider your own well-being, as well as the safety of those around you.

If you or your loved one are ready to start driving, the learning process can be broken down into smaller tasks. Tackle each task one at a time, and once comfortable, put all of those pieces together.

Here are some tips:

  • When embarking on driving lessons, be sure to take frequent breaks. There is a lot of information to absorb, so no need to become overwhelmed.
  • Drive on familiar roads only until you’re comfortable enough to branch out. New routes can be incredibly overwhelming, especially when dealing with traffic. If possible, start on low-traffic roads close to home. Once you feel more comfortable, you can change your route.
  • If you are teaching your loved one to drive, remind them to remain calm when someone else breaks the rules of the road. There will be instances when they will need to react, so it’s important to react in a way that ensures the safest possible outcome.
  • If music is distracting for you or your loved one, avoid playing any while on the road./li>
  • To learn how to not only drive and park but also how to use the car properly (operate windshield wipers, defrost the car, etc.), head to an empty parking lot early on a Sunday morning./li>
  • Since there is the possibility of interaction with law enforcement, it’s important to discuss possible scenarios. Communication will be key. For some individuals with autism, they will need to practice these potential situations./li>

Regardless of how comfortable or willing your loved one is to drive, repetition in safe areas is key to building confidence. Practice, practice, practice! Before anyone drives on public roads, they must be comfortable in the driver’s seat. There is no rush to learn how to drive. The most important thing is to remain safe.

Resources on Autism and Driving

Research shows that many countries, including the United States, have no autism-specific licensing requirements for learner drivers with autism. There is a general lack of support, especially in terms of driver’s training, for individuals and their families. Evidence shows that individuals with autism drive differently than their neurotypical counterparts. That is why it’s important to take advantage of the resources available to you.

For more information, please refer to the following resources:

At the Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning, we have developed a wide range of programs that help adults with autism grow and thrive. All of these programs help individuals reach their full potential. While driving isn’t a specific program we offer, we work closely with each of our clients and their families to assist them in any way we can. We offer unique resources and ongoing support, allowing our clients to become more independent.
Have questions? We welcome you to contact us today!

smiling headshot photo of Heather Davis, clinical director editor of the adult autism center

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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