Driving in Teens with Autism

April 23, 2013

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to dedicate this blog to discussing the issue of driving in teens with autism spectrum disorders. Lately, I have been fielding more and more questions from parents of teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) about whether their teens are ready to drive. Many of the children who were originally diagnosed 10+ years ago, when we all started having a much better understanding of autism spectrum disorders, are now aging into potential drivers.

Parents are appropriately concerned, as teens with ASD may have characteristics that place them at risk for unsafe driving behaviors, like inattention, or getting lost in the details of the road, or difficulty recognizing the cues of others on the road. On the other hand, they may also have characteristics that promote safer driving behavior, such as a vigilance to follow the rules of the road.

I’ve previously blogged about why teens with developmental disabilities might be at risk for unsafe driving, but what do we know specifically about the driving in teens with ASD?

To start off with, how frequently do teens with ASD drive? Research I’ve conducted suggested that almost 2/3 of teens with higher functioning ASD are either interested in or currently driving. Predictors of driving included placement in full time regular education, plans to attend college, a history of a paid job, and parents with experience teaching other teens to drive. 

Another area where more research is needed is in the actual driving performance of teens with ASD. One study suggests that males with ASD may have slower hazard detection times, and difficulties recognizing hazards involving people. Our study found that teens with higher functioning autism spectrum disorders crashed less frequently than those in the general teen population, but our sample size was small.

One other study revealed that parents’ suggestions for how to teach their teens with ASD to drive included:

  • Using practice and repetition
  • Breaking down skills into individual steps
  • Using video games and other driving simulation experiences
  • Using verbal and visual scripts prior to drives
  • Staying calm and patient

Clearly, there is still much to learn about the driving experience of teens with ASD- how they learn, how they drive, and how we can help them. This is such an important topic, especially as more children with ASD age into the driving years. For more information on driving in teens with ASD, visit here