Autism and Driving: Study Opens Research into Unmet Needs of Adults

Date: 
June 30, 2014
First study on adult drivers with autism reveals self-perceived challenges and self-imposed limits; can tailored driver education help?

 

As the number of adults with autism rapidly grows, a new study suggests a range of self-reported difficulties that might be addressed by tailored training to support safe driving – a key to independence for many adults.

The researchers found that, on average, adults with autism earn their drivers' licenses at later ages, drive less frequently and put more restrictions on their driving. These self-imposed limits include not driving on highways or at night. Adult drivers with autism also reported more traffic violations, on average, than did a comparison group of drivers without autism.

The report, by investigators at Drexel University, appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The small handful of previous studies on autism and driving have focused on teens and new drivers rather than experienced adult drivers.

In the new study, the researchers had participants complete a questionnaire extensively used in driving research to explore real-life experiences. Participants included 78 adult drivers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a comparison group of 94 drivers without ASD. They ranged in age from 18 to 60, with an average age of 34.

The differences in self-described driving behavior (outlined above) are open to several possible interpretations, the researchers say. The self-imposed restrictions, for example, may reflect self-awareness of actual driving difficulties. Sensory-integration issues are among autism’s core symptoms. They can include difficulty processing competing sights and sounds.

Such difficulties could explain the higher rate of self-reported traffic violations, the researchers add. However, it’s possible that, as a group, the adults with autism were simply more honest in their answers.

The results also provide guidance in the breadth of training that might benefit adult drivers with autism. The self-reported challenges weren’t restricted to specific areas, the researchers note. They spanned all areas including but not limited to anticipating another driver’s behavior, motion perception and reaction time. Indeed, the participants with autism reported greater difficulty, on average, across all areas.

"This is a first step toward identifying, categorizing and quantifying challenges that may exist in this population," says study co-author Maria Schultheis. "What we found will help determine what needs there may be for interventions--from driver education programs to different kinds of training exposures."

In the next phase of research, the team is using driving simulation to study actual driving performance in adults on the autism spectrum. Individuals interested in participating in these studies can contact Dr. Schultheis here.

“Adults on the autism spectrum want to live as independently as possible,” comments Autism Speaks Director for Adult Services Leslie Long. “This includes the ability to drive to work, social activities and educational opportunities. We welcome and support studies such as this, aimed at helping adults understand their capabilities and supporting their needs as drivers. This can be crucial for adult life planning.”

“Adults on the autism spectrum face many barriers to full participation in society," adds Paul Shattuck, director of research in life-course outcomes at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. “Facilitating access to transportation options will increase the capacity for these adults to contribute to their communities." Dr. Shattuck, who was not directly involved in the study, pursues research, funded in part by Autism Speaks, on how to promote the successful transition to adulthood among teens and young adults with autism.

In 2010, Autism Speaks provided funding for the development of a tool kit and video to help individuals with autism to make decisions about driving. Learn more about these resources here.

And earlier this year, Autism Speaks “Science Guy” Michael Rosanoff reported from IMFAR 2014 on a driver-simulation program being used to assess and improve driving skills in individuals with autism. See his video blog below. (You can follow him on Twitter @AS_ScienceGuy.)