Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum and Learning to Drive

"My daughter is 18 and has ASD [level 1]. Hers is particularly with anti-social behavior and thoughts. My entire family is ridiculing me for not forcing her to get her drivers license, but she is scared and doesn't want to. Should I force her to? Am I wrong?"

RE: "Should I force her to?" No. I'm pretty sure that would backfire. When teens get their driver’s license, parents get worried. And this worry is justified! Here are the alarming national teen driving statistics:
  • 16- and 17-year-old driver death rates increase with each additional passenger.
  • 16-year-olds are 3 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than the average of all drivers.
  • 16-year-olds have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age.
  • About 2 out of every 3 teenagers killed in motor vehicle crashes are males.
  • About 2,014 occupants of passenger vehicles ages 16-20 who are killed in crashes are not buckled up.
  • About 2,500 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 die in motor vehicle crashes every year.
  • About 31% of drivers ages 15-20 who are killed in motor vehicle crashes are drinking some amount of alcohol and 25% are alcohol-impaired (i.e., have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher).
  • About 37% of male drivers ages 15-20 who are involved in fatal crashes are speeding at the time.
  • About 63% of teenage passenger deaths occur in vehicles driven by another teenager.
  • About 81% of teenage motor vehicle crash deaths are passenger vehicle occupants.
  • Among deaths of passengers of all ages, 19% occur when a teenager is driving.
  • Crashes involving 15- to 17-year-olds cost more than $34 billion nationwide in medical treatment, property damage and other costs.
  • Drivers age 15-20 account for 12% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes and 14% of all drivers involved in police-reported crashes.
  • Hand-held cell phone use while driving is highest among 16- to 24-year-olds.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds.

Now, throw Aspergers (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) into the mix – and parents really do have something to worry about. For a teenager on the autism spectrum, it often takes quite a bit longer to learn all the implications of driving. What may be a problem for the young driver is the ability to judge what other road users, pedestrians, animals, etc. might do and how this should affect his driving. Understanding that not all drivers and other road users obey all of the rules all of the time is a real challenge for young drivers on the autism spectrum.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) teens effortlessly talk on their cell phones when driving. They smoke cigarettes, eat a sandwich, sing to the radio, and nonchalantly discuss all sorts of topics with their passenger-friends. While they are doing all this multi-tasking, they also have to watch out for other cars in front of and behind them, shift gears, reverse, use the windshield wipers, brake, and so on.

However, for teens with AS and HFA to perform all the above tasks simultaneously is very difficult due their input system. When performing a task which requires concentration, most teens on the spectrum prefer total silence (or at least very little noise). They may not mind listening to a bit of music, but usually don't like someone talking to them because they have to (a) listen to what the other person is saying, (b) think of an answer, and (c) reply.

So how can parents ensure that their "special needs" teenager will not end up killing himself while on the road? Below are some critical tips to consider.

Driving Tips Specifically Related to AS and HFA—

1. Long before driving comes into the picture, be sure to help your child learn how to ride a bike. Learning to ride a bike as a youngster is a very good foundation for anyone with an autism spectrum disorder. Bike-riding skills will help the child become more aware of the possible actions of other drivers and pedestrians. Also having an instructor who is aware of the anxieties and other issues that AS and HFA teens will have goes a long way toward positive lessons where what is taught and being learned is remembered and recalled.

2. Have your teen take driving lessons with a driver education instructor, but double the amount of physical driving practice to help him really get used to reacting to normal driving situations.

3. Ask the instructor to allow your teen to take frequent breaks during driving instruction sessions.

4. Ask the instructor to use physical cues to help with estimating speed and distance. Also ask that the driving instructions be broken down into small sections.

5. Bring information that can help the driving instructor adapt strategies to help your AS or HFA teen understand better.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

6. Don't let your teen use computer simulation when practicing to drive. The teenager on the autism spectrum may not generalize the information well enough from computer to real life situations, plus it could confuse him.

7. Have a driving instructor assess your teen’s visual/motor skills. You want to know how easily he gets distracted.

8. Have you teen drive along familiar routes as often as possible. New routes and not knowing where they are going can easily distract and upset teens on the spectrum.

9. Have your teen continue to practice his driving skills even after he has already passed his driving test.

10. Help your teen apply for a driving license at the normal legal age, but be sure to put down Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism on the application at the DMV. It's against the law not to declare this on the application, but it won't disqualify your teen for getting a license.

11. Simulate situations in an empty parking lot that require avoidance steering, emergency breaking and distractions like loud music, water on the windshield and pedestrians until the teen driver is comfortable.

12. Teach your teen to remain calm when other drivers break the rules of the road. AS and HFA teens follow the rules of the road and the signs concretely, sometimes to a fault. Help your teen anticipate the actions of other cars by observing their behavior.

With the above information in mind, parents should be able to have some peace-of-mind knowing that their young driver with special needs will make it home safely with nothing more than an occasional fender-bender.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

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