Teaching a Teen on the Autistic Spectrum to Drive
My son is an awesome kid and the light of my life, but since he’s on the Autistic Spectrum, he faces some unique challenges in life.
One of those challenges is learning to drive a car!
It's Not Easy
Although most typical kids start learning to drive when they are 15 or so, my son’s anxiety about driving was such that we delayed his driver’s training until he was 18 years old.
On one hand, I don’t blame him for his worries. After all, the idea of learning how to keep 3,000 pounds of metal, glass and gasoline from crashing into a wall or hurtling down into a ditch is enough to make anyone nervous.
And there are so many skills to learn when it comes to driving a car: Not only do you have to know how to operate all the equipment, but you have to learn how much space your vehicle takes up, where its “edges” are, and where you are in the driving lane when you’re on the road. That takes some getting used to, because we don’t sit right in the center of the car when we drive.
Then there’s the tricky issue of figuring out the subtle signs that tell us what other drivers are about to do—whether they are planning to speed up, slow down, switch lanes, or turn. We know what we are about to do, but what about those other drivers? Sure, there are laws, and there is accepted driving etiquette. But not everyone follows the rules and predicting the behavior of strangers is a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone on the autism spectrum.
But on the other hand, knowing how to drive a car is an essential skill for independent living. The good news is that like every other skill, driving a car can be mastered, as long as you get the right instruction and practice.
So I was thrilled to learn that there are specially trained driving instructors who know how teach people with certain disabling conditions to drive. In fact, I wish I’d known earlier that they were out there. It would have helped to know that I was not on my own when it came to teaching my son to drive.
We were lucky enough to find a center that provides occupational therapy driving instruction in the city near us. Although we’re not finished with the instruction yet, the therapist has been able to encourage my son enough that he’s willing to work at learning this important skill.
A Few Suggestions
So here is what I can suggest to other parents who have a special needs teenager who may be interested in learning to drive:
- Check first with your primary care doctor. You may want to discuss any issues or questions you may have about your teen’s driving readiness. Also, if you’re working with an occupational therapist or other therapist, talk to them.
- You may want to discuss with your school team about putting driving goals on the student’s IEP as one of their independent living goals.
- Find an occupational therapist who specializes in driving, or a driver rehabilitation specialist. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website can help you locate service providers in your U.S. state and around the world. Their Resources links can be very helpful, too.
- Another excellent resource is the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has a lot of information on autism spectrum disorders and driving.
The Next Steps
Even though there are experts to help and information to read, as a parent you are still the most important person when it comes to teaching your teen to drive. Here are the next steps to take as you and your teen begin driving:
- Help your teen obtain his or her temporary driver’s license. The requirements for every jurisdiction are probably to be found online. When you go in person to the driver licensing center, make sure you bring with you whatever documents they require, such as birth certificates, photo identification, and so on. Also, in the US at least, your teen should prepare to take the written, multiple-choice test on driving laws in order to get their temporary driver’s license. Practice tests can often be found online.
- Now it’s time to practice! We started out by practicing in the empty parking lot of our local school. I would drive to the parking lot, and then my son and I switched seats.
- Setbacks happen, and it’s important when you’re teaching to remain calm. We had been circling the parking lot just fine for a few weeks, when my son accidentally put his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake and broke one of the car's tail lights on a concrete post. We all were fine and the car was fixed, but it took a while before he could summon up the courage to try driving again.
- As we ventured out onto the roads, our therapist explained how to do “commentary driving.” This is a technique where you talk out all the driving decisions you make. According to the handout our therapist gave us, there are three phases to commentary driving:
- First, as an experienced driver, I would drive the car and talk about every decision I was making. Example: “The light is yellow, so I’m going to slow down now. When the light turns green, we will be turning, so I’ll put on my blinker. The driver opposite us will go first, and then we will turn.”
- In later sessions, I would drive and my son would tell me what things to look out for as I drove. This requires a lot more focus and attention than a non-driver might be used to, so we wouldn’t do that for very long drives in the beginning.
- When he got behind the wheel, he would tell me what driving decisions he was making. Once he became familiar with that, we could move on to the “what-if?” game—what if it was raining, or if the roads were icy? What if someone texted you while you were driving?
- Finally, don’t forget to be encouraging. Remember to point out what your teen is doing right, and notice when their skill in driving is improving. It’s important to practice until skills are established, and positive reflections on a teen’s efforts can make them more willing to practice.
In case you would like additional explanations, here is one of the many descriptions of commentary driving found online.
For adolescents with higher functioning autism spectrum disorders, learning how to drive can be a big step toward independence. Parents who are looking for ways to help their kids learn this important skill can get support – you don’t have to do it alone, and that’s good news.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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