A driver and a passenger in a vehicle.

How to Overcome The Difficulties of Getting a Driver’s License With Autism

July 22, 2020

How to Overcome The Difficulties of Getting a Driver’s License With Autism

Photo credit: Pexels

Autism Spectrum Disorder — or ASD — is more common than many are aware of. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data and statistics on ASD, around 1 in 54 children are identified with ASD. While incidence does not vary based on race, according to the same source, ASD is four times as common in boys than it is for girls.

ASD can restrict or prohibit an individual from carrying out a variety of daily activities, however, research by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found nearly two-thirds of teens with high-functioning autism are interested in driving. A longitudinal study of driver licensing rates among adolescents and young adults with ASD, found that 90% of teens acquired their driver’s license within two years of getting their learner’s permit. This guide is designed to help individuals navigate the process, and provide awareness of the resources available.

Levels of Autism

In the past, there have been classification levels of ASD, but now the classification falls under one large umbrella phrase: “on the spectrum.” The spectrum itself may seem nuanced, but it considers a variety of factors and inclusions from high-functioning individuals on the spectrum to non-functioning individuals on the spectrum. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual narrates more standardized ASD diagnostic criteria, and it goes as follows:

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):
    • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
    • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
    • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to an absence of interest in peers.
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):
    • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g. simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
    • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g. extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take the same route or eat the same food every day).
    • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g. strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
    • Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

It is important to consider that while one individual on the spectrum may struggle in a certain area, another individual on the spectrum may thrive in that same respect (and vice versa).

Necessary Skills for Driving That May Be Difficult for People With ASD

Due to the varying ASD signs and symptoms, there are some individuals on the spectrum that may struggle with specific things that would make driving harder or less safe. According to an NCBI ASB driving behavior study, individuals on the spectrum traditionally experience struggles with social and communication skills that are functionally related to working memory, motor coordination, attention, planning, mental flexibility, and visual perception — all of which are all closely related to skills necessary for driving. It is important to be aware of the various driving skills that may be hard for an individual on the spectrum, such as:

  • Grasping and following the rules of the road;
  • Motor skills;
  • Emotional control;
  • Coordination;
  • Focus/Attention;
  • Sequencing;
  • Prioritizing;
  • Predictability;
  • Rote memory;
  • Problem-solving;
  • Reaction time.

Determining Whether a Person With ASD Is Able to Drive

There is no set-in-stone way to determine whether an individual on the spectrum is prepared to drive; it is ultimately up to the parents, caretakers, or a driver’s education instructor. It is important for parents and caretakers to consider the severity of where the individual sits on the spectrum.

Factors to Consider

It can be difficult to make such an important decision without considering all of the factors. If you are having trouble determining whether or not an individual on the spectrum disorder is fit to drive, consider the following questions:

  • How flexible can they be when they encounter changes?
  • Are they able to adapt relatively quickly, or do sudden deviations from their expectations cause them severe distress?
  • Do they have the motor skills needed to safely operate a vehicle’s controls?
  • Are they able to handle distracting environments while still making quick, appropriate decisions, such as handling the noise of a radio, the visual stimuli of cars and billboards, and still reacting to a vehicle cutting them off?
  • Do they have sensory processing issues that would result in anxiety when they encounter lots of noise or shiny moving objects?
  • Are they able to maintain focus on a task for long periods of time, or will they get quickly distracted from driving?
  • Can they maintain focus while being aware of their surroundings?
  • Can they maintain enough awareness to notice potential obstacles and plan how to react to them?
  • Are they on any sort of medication that will hinder their ability to drive?

If you are unable to eliminate personal biases when asking these questions, it might be in your interest to seek out professional help.

Professional Evaluation

If you feel that you are unfit to evaluate whether or not an individual is fit for driving — or you simply feel uncomfortable doing so — there are professional options available to help you determine this. When you are the parent or caretaker there can be biases that are hard to avoid. For example, if you are the parent that is responsible for driving the individual around wherever they need to go, you may be apt to overlook a few things that may raise red flags for others. There are two primary options for professional evaluation:

  1. Driving Rehabilitation Specialist: Not only will a DRS help you identify whether or not someone is fit for driving, they will also provide rehabilitation and instruction for how to mitigate these issues. You can find a DRS online, or search for any local possibilities;
  2. Traditional Counselor: When you utilize a counselor, they analyze areas of strength and areas of struggle. Asking a counselor for their professional opinion can be a great way to get an unbiased opinion from someone who knows the individual on the spectrum better than most.

Preparing a Person With Autism for Driving Lessons

If a caretaker, professional, or yourself determine that the individual on the spectrum is able to drive safely, you will want to make sure that they are well-prepared. This preparation goes beyond what is taught and learned through traditional driver’s education — it should be personalized and tailored to the individual on the spectrum’s specific needs.

Tips for Driver Preparation

There are additional measures that can be taken advantage of in order to make the process as smooth as possible. The following tips are supplementary ideas for better preparing those on the spectrum for learning to drive — both in the classroom and on the road:

  • Meet the instructor: In an article about social relationships published by Autism Society, individuals on the spectrum may struggle to effectively communicate and socialize — especially if the instructor is someone that is unfamiliar or just a casual acquaintance. Reach out to the instructor when you sign up for the class or introduce yourself from the beginning;
  • Self-advocate: One of the best ways to set yourself up for success is to communicate and self-advocate to inform the instructor of additional help that you may need, how you learn, and anything that makes you upset or uncomfortable;
  • Stress management: It can be easy to just let stress pile up and overtake your plans. Make sure to deal with your stress with the following stress management techniques — such as:

    • Learning to recognize stress signals so that you are able to seek out help whenever you sense that you are struggling;
    • Practicing meditation and mindfulness to gain better insight into the way your mind works, and in order to mitigate stress;
    • Utilizing the ABC technique to overcome negative thinking;
    • Taking advantage of the benefits of exercise and the benefits of dieting on your mind and body function as a whole;
    • Healthy sleep patterns;
    • Asking for help.

Tips for Vehicle Preparation

Most driver education programs will provide a car for instruction, but not for taking your driver’s license road test. You will want to practice with the car that you are planning to take your road test with to ensure you become familiar with it prior to testing.

You also want to be sure that your vehicle is working properly when learning how to drive. First, you want to know what a properly running car should sound and feel like so that you can identify when a car is not safe to be driving, or potentially even figure out what is wrong. Second, you want to be aware of routine recommended maintenance necessary to keep your vehicle safe, running well, and to extend the life of your vehicle. Generally, the recommended maintenance differs from vehicle to vehicle in the owner’s manual, but traditionally this includes:

  • Oil: Most oileries will provide you a sticker recommending a date — or a number of miles — to come back in for an oil change. This generally falls between every 3-6 months or every 3,000-5,000 miles. You should also change your filter every other time you get your oil changed;
  • Tires: One of the best ways to maintain your tires is proper tire inflation. The PSI that you are supposed to keep can generally be found on the wall of the tire or on the inside of the driver-side door. You should replace your tires if you see the following: tire age, wear, bubbles, bulges, irregular vibration, sidewall cracks, or bad valve caps. It is also recommended to get your tires rotated occasionally, but how often you should rotate car tires depends on what type of car you have, and if the car is front, rear, or all-wheel drive.
  • Belts and hoses: There are hoses and belts in your engine that help direct fluids that prevent engine overheating. You will want to check for any tears or wear in the case that they need replacing, and you will want to ensure that the hoses are all connected and leak-free;
  • Brakes: How often your brakes should be replaced depends on your driving tendencies, the environment you reside in, and how hard your brake pads are. Traditionally, it is recommended to get your brakes changed every 50,000 miles, but if you hear screeching when you apply your brakes, you should seek out a tire shop;
  • Windshield wipers: Replacing your windshield wipers should be something that is done when you notice reduced visibility.

Most auto shops will check all of the recommended maintenance measures when you go in for a routine oil check or tire change. If the car you use is going to need a lot of care to keep it running, you might want to sell your car and start fresh. There are tons of resources readily available to help you; from figuring out how much your car is worth, to recycling options if your car is too far gone to sell/trade.

Effective Training Techniques for Student Drivers With ASD

Effectively training and providing the resources for drivers education for student drivers on the spectrum can seem overwhelming if you aren’t aware of effective ways to do so. The following are effective ways for individuals on the spectrum to learn how to drive:

  • Practice and repetition: As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Utilize parking lots, and large open areas to practice;
  • Break it down: Break down skills into individual steps that are easy to digest and remember;
  • Utilize driving simulations: There are video games and virtual reality tools that are readily available for all consumers to take advantage of. This is a great way to get a look into areas that may need extra attention without much risk;
  • Remain calm and patient: If you find yourself feeling anxious take a break, pull over. Don’t feel rushed to push past your comfort zone when learning to drive.

Preparing for the Written Test

Once the individual is confident and ready, it’s time to take the written permit test. To prepare:

  • Study your state’s driver’s handbook. You will frequently be given one if you take driver’s education, or you can find one at your local DMV;
  • Review the rules of the road and general driver safety guidelines;
  • Take a practice test online, and review any questions you get wrong;
  • Call your local DMV to make arrangements if you require an oral test or extended testing time.

Additional Resources

There are a variety of helpful resources for student drivers with ASD, the parents and caretakers of student drivers with ASD, as well as the instructors who teach students with ASD — these include:

  • The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists: An organization founded in 1977 to support drivers education instructors that are educating individuals with disabilities. Members get access to things like a mentor program, medicare navigation, public searchable directory listings, education discounts, insurance discounts, new program development tools, public relations tools, as well as vehicle discounts;
  • Parent-Supervised Driving Lesson Plans: There are a variety of parent-based driving lessons available online. These touch on the basics, different driving environments, and additional driving challenges;
  • Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants: The U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration designed this program to assists the states in developing the vocational rehabilitation programs designed to enhance self-sufficiency;
  • Autism Speaks Resource Guide: Autism Speaks is an organization dedicated to providing equal opportunities and solutions for individuals on the spectrum and their families. The resource guide offers resources by state, life stage, and level of support required;
  • Psychology Today: Psychology Today offers a platform to search for ASD-specific therapists in your surrounding area, or offered online. This can be helpful for long-term therapy, as well as an unbiased opinion on clearing someone on the spectrum to drive.