Teen with autism reluctant to drive; should this parent push?

“My son, who has autism, is not sure if he wants to learn to drive. He’s nervous about getting into an accident. He follows laws, is very careful and has driven go carts. His coordination is clumsy in games like catch or basketball. But he has good balance. I’m encouraging him to be open about the idea. What are your thoughts?”

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is by psychologist Cathryn Lehman, of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The medical center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

What a great question! Of course, many parents grapple with this topic to one degree or another. How do I know if and when my child is ready to drive? The level of concern is understandably elevated when your child has autism.

It’s important to remember that there’s no set rule to determine when someone is ready to drive, regardless of autism-related challenges. Some teenagers feel ready to drive as soon as they’re old enough. Others wait several years or choose the alternative of navigating their local public transportation system.

Often, life circumstances play the largest role in the decision-making process. For example, if your son is going to be responsible for commuting to and from college or a job, learning to drive may become an important component of his independence. However, if there’s a bus or subway stop nearby, learning to drive may not be imperative.

Here are a few points to consider when helping your son to make this important decision:

A checklist of crucial driving skills

You mention that your son is good at following laws. That’s a great start, and a strength frequently associated with autism. Of course, there’s much more to driving than simply remembering rules. In order to drive safely and effectively, an individual must use:

Social judgement and perspective-taking – For example, a good driver has to ask and answer such questions as “Is the driver in the opposing lane going to allow me to turn in front of him?”

Fine and gross motor skills – Can the driver use the wheel, brake and gas pedals and other controls in an effective and timely manner?

Physical coordination – Maneuvering a vehicle requires the driver to use hands and feet simultaneously and in coordination.

Planning – A driver needs to know how to plan a route and follow it without getting disoriented. He or she also needs to understand when the car needs gas or service.

Cognitive flexibility – A driver needs to figure out to do when the unexpected happens. What if a road is closed or there’s construction? What if it starts to rain or snow heavily? What if the car gets a flat tire or otherwise starts making an unexpected sound that may require a response?

Sustained attention – The average commute is about 25 minutes. Drivers needs to keep their full attention on driving for the entire length of a trip.

Impulse control and emotion regulation – How would your son react if another driver shouted at him or used a rude gesture? Would he respond appropriately if pulled over by police? How would he respond if other drivers were not abiding by the rules of the road as precisely as he thought they should?

Multi-tasking and prioritizing – Many distractions can and will compete for a driver’s attention. A cell phone rings. A drink spills. An irritating – or favorite – song plays on the radio. For safety’s sake, a driver must continually evaluate what should be foremost in his or her attention and screen out distractors as needed.

Handling potential sensory overload

Second, many people on the autism spectrum have a tendency to be over-stimulated by the sights, sounds, smells and other sensory information in their environment. It is important to consider the very real possibility that situations such as heavy traffic, highway speeds or a profusion of road signs will prove over-stimulating to a driver who has autism.

Get expert advice

Third, you and your son do not need to make this decision alone! A variety of professionals can help you and your son determine if he’s ready and able to drive safely. Such an expert may also be able to help your son become more confident in his skills.

One place to start is through your son’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), if he has one. The school district’s IEP transition coordinator should be able to connect you with someone who can conduct a driver readiness assessment. Another possible resource would be a community organization that specializes in vocation rehabilitation services. Even a local driving school can be a great resource if it has instructors who can recognize and assess your son’s issues.

Autism study looks at driver readiness

In a 2012 study, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia surveyed nearly 300 parents of teens with autism who were registered with the Interactive Autism Network. In the process, they identified some of the characteristics increased the likelihood that a teen with autism was driving. These factors included having an Individualized Education Plan that included driving goals, planning to attend college, holding a paid job outside the home and having a parent who had previously taught a teen to drive. These aren’t requirements for driving with autism. Rather they represent some additional characteristics that might help you and your son determine whether driving is right for him at this time.

And if he’s not comfortable with learning to drive now, encourage him to keep an open mind as he might feel ready in a few years.

Good luck to you and your son and thank you again for your question!

For more on autism and driving, also see:

Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
Find the ATN center nearest you.