For high-functioning autistic individuals who do not have severe intellectual disabilities, getting a driver’s license is an achievable and realistic goal.
Autistic individuals and their families work together with other professionals to determine the individual’s readiness for driving. If the individual is ready and motivated to learn, a supportive family can help make the goal of becoming a licensed driver a reality.
Learning to Drive When You Have Autism
Many teens and young adults with autism express interest in learning to drive.
According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, almost two-thirds of adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) currently drive or would like to learn how to drive. One in three adolescents with ASD who do not have an intellectual disability obtain their driver’s license by the age of 21, and most do it around the age of 17 when their same-aged neurotypical peers usually do.
Autism presents with unique challenges that can impact how someone learns to drive, but it does not make it impossible. With reasonable accommodations, teens and young adults with autism can successfully learn to drive safely.
Challenges that autistic individuals without intellectual disability face that can impact driving ability include impairments in:
- Social interactions.
- Motor skills.
- Emotional regulation.
- Attention abilities.
- Executive functioning.
The above skills are all important for safe driving. Autism can affect one’s ability to make quick decisions and process all of the information that comes with driving on the road, but it can also improve other driving skills, such as the ability to obey traffic laws.
One recent study found that men with autism may exhibit slower hazard detection times on the road. Another study, however, found that teens with high-functioning ASD were less likely to get into car accidents than teens from the general population.
Like anyone learning to drive, autistic individuals must take special care in learning the rules of the road and how to safely operate a vehicle. Sometimes, extra attention to certain driving-related skills is needed to offset some of the difficulties presented by autism.
Determining Readiness to Drive
For autistic individuals, the decision to learn to drive is often a family decision. Getting a driver’s license offers a certain level of freedom to get around on one’s own, and it is a rite of passage for many young adults.
The discussion about driving readiness should include your developmental pediatrician or primary care physician and any other important members of your treatment team, such as occupational therapists, behavior therapists, counselors, and school staff members who contribute to an Individualized Education Plan.
Driver rehabilitation specialists who specialize or have training on working with people with special needs can also be consulted prior to starting lessons. They can provide behind-the-wheel lessons when the student is ready.
Ultimately, determining readiness to learn to drive is a personal and family decision. It also depends on the individual’s interest in learning to drive. If an autistic individual doesn’t have a desire to drive, there is little reason to embark on the endeavor.
Consider these questions in order to determine driving readiness:
- Does the individual consistently exhibit good judgment and maturity?
- Is the individual receptive to instruction and constructive criticism?
- Does the individual demonstrate knowledge of the rules of the road and what is covered in driver education classes?
- Is the individual up for practicing driving with a skilled and licensed adult?
- Is there a licensed adult who is willing to practice with the individual?
- Does the individual have any medical or behavioral conditions that could inhibit safe driving?
- Are there any medical interventions, such as medication for ADHD, that are needed to promote safe driving?
Although there is a minimum age in each state for when you are allowed to get your driver’s license, it does not mean that you have to get it as soon as you turn 16 or 17. You may be ready to start learning to drive now, or you may feel more prepared to start learning in a few years’ time. An open conversation with your family and support team will help you determine when it is the right time for you to start learning to drive.
Resources for Autistic Individuals Learning to Drive
If you and your family have determined that you are ready to learn to drive, there are many resources available to assist you, including many online driving resources.
Information on driving basics, how to determine if you are a safe driver, how to get your license, and more can be found at the following sites:
- TeenDriving.com: This site covers information about driver’s education options, driving for the first time, the driving tests, how to gain experience, and graduated license programs. It also includes a list of questions to help you assess if you are a safe driver or not.
- DriversEd.com: This site offers online courses that teach driver’s education for teens and adults, as well as in-car driving lessons, traffic school, practice permit tests, and DMV information.
- Driving Tests: Free practice tests, as well as tests to purchase, are offered at this site to help you study for and pass your DMV exams.
- Virtual Drive USA: This site offers you a way to complete your driver’s education requirements online. Courses are taken online at your own pace. Additional study guides are available to help you pass the learner’s permit test.
When researching driving schools, it can be beneficial to find a school that specializes in working with individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities. Here is a selection of driving schools that specialize in teaching autistic students how to drive:
- Modern Driver Institute in southeastern Pennsylvania
- Maxwell Motorsports and Driving School in Memphis, Tennessee
- The Next Street: Driver Rehab Services headquartered in Watertown, Connecticut
- Colonial Driving School in Colonial Heights, Virginia
- Knepler Driving Schools in Stratford and Monroe, Connecticut, and Boca Raton, Florida
Further research into driving schools in your area will help you find a program that best fits your needs. As prevalence rates and awareness of autism are growing, programs across the country are expanding their services to meet the needs of this unique population. When you reach out to a driving program, first ask if they offer any specialized programs for individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities.
Teaching Your Child With Autism How to Drive
If you have a child with autism who has expressed interest in learning how to drive, it is important for you to know that they can do it. Learning to drive is an important step in the transition to adulthood for many adolescents.
Young adults, with and without autism, have personal, social, and employment-related reasons for wanting to learn to drive. For autistic individuals, it’s essential that their support team is fully on board with them learning to drive. Consult with your child’s doctors and therapists before to embarking on this journey.
The process of teaching any teen or young adult to drive can be stressful. Parents of autistic children may face additional challenges in this process. Here are some tips for parents of an autistic child who is learning to drive:
- Be patient. Your child won’t be a good driver their first time behind the wheel. Don’t expect too much too soon.
- Allow your student driver to make mistakes. This is part of the learning process. Resist the urge to draw conclusions on their ability early on.
- Start slow and build upon skills as they improve. The process of learning to drive will take a while. Don’t give all the needed information in the first lesson.
- Break skills down into individual steps. Keep your language clear and concise. Take larger concepts and explain them in small steps.
- Practice a lot. Repetition of skills is important. Even if it seems they have something down, repeat it regularly.
- Go over verbal and visual information prior to driving. Talk through things before starting the practical part of the lesson.
- Encourage your child to practice. Driving simulation games are a great, safe way for new drivers to practice. They can hone driving-related skills, like fine motor skills and reaction times.
The most important thing when teaching your autistic child to drive is to allow the learning to happen at their pace. Always stay calm, and do not worry if it takes your child longer than you think it should for them to learn a new skill. It’s tough to see progress on a daily basis, but if you look at the growth over weeks or months, you’ll see they have come a long way.
There is no timeline for how long it should take to learn to drive. Let your child’s motivation drive the learning process and do your best to support them along the way.
Resources for Parents
Teaching your child to drive can be challenging, to say the least, especially if they have special needs. Fortunately, there are many resources available for parents who are teaching their children to drive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a resource page for parents that covers many topics, including:
- The eight danger zones of driving.
- Enforcing your state’s teen driving laws.
- Creating a parent-teen driving agreement.
- Sharing what you have learned with your children and other parents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also offers resources for parents to promote safe teen driving. Resources available through the AAP California chapter include:
- Tips for keeping your teen driver safe.
- Useful websites about learning to drive and traffic safety.
- Helpful printouts, such as parent-teen training guides.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offers a range of autism-specific resources for teaching your child to drive. The Teen Driver Source program operated by the hospital provides helpful resources that include:
- Information about teaching autistic adolescents to drive.
Specifics About Driving for Autistic Individuals
There are no laws that prohibit individuals with autism from learning to drive, explains the Autism Society. The most important issue for everyone is safety.
Determining when someone with autism is ready to drive depends on many factors, such as interest in driving, ability to multitask, personal judgment, and maturity level. Again, it’s wise to consult with your child’s care team before making a decision on readiness.
Learning to drive can be challenging and stressful for anyone, but with the right supports in place, it can be a positive and rewarding experience for people with autism.
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