Research In Action

Research In Action

autistic teen learning to drive
Behind the Wheel with Autistic Young Drivers

Specialized driving instructors can help us understand the needs of autistic adolescents in pursuing licensure and how to best prepare these youth and their families to navigate this transition. Independent transportation can be an important way to support their participation in community-based activities, such as school and employment.

With my team of researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention and the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we previously published research that examined specialized driving instructors’ perspectives and experiences about facilitating a safe learning-to-drive process with autistic adolescents and their families. Through our new research with specialized driving instructors, recently published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, we learned about the teaching strategies used to help autistic adolescents gain behind-the-wheel skills and recommendations to improve the learning-to-drive process.

Our study revealed clear strengths and a series of specific challenges autistic adolescents experience while learning to drive.

Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, we conducted in-depth interviews with 17 specialized driving instructors who were trained as occupational therapists, driving rehabilitation specialists, or licensed driving instructors with experience working with autistic drivers.

Our study revealed clear strengths and a series of specific challenges autistic adolescents experience while learning to drive. The path to becoming licensed may be longer but is achievable with rigorous tailored instruction.

Key Findings

This research offers novel insight to the practices of specialized driving instructors teaching autistic adolescents to drive. Our key findings provide guidance in developing best practices for teaching this population of young drivers:

  • Autistic adolescents may benefit from taking driving lessons at their own unique pace, which could require lessons to be extended over the course of months to years. An individualized timeline can provide the opportunity for practice and controlled introduction of new skills one at a time. This scaffolded instruction allows students to develop mastery before adding new skills.
  • Instructors observed many strengths of young autistic drivers, including careful adherence to the rules of the road, close attention to driving environments, and limited risk-taking, which may help improve their driving safety.
  • Challenges encountered in learning to drive included being overly rule-bound, becoming easily distracted, difficulty with integration of visual cues, and challenges in hand-eye-foot coordination.
  • Instructors also described supporting autistic drivers in preparing for driving-related experiences outside the vehicle, such as changing a tire or interacting with law enforcement.
  • After becoming licensed, driving instructors may recommend that autistic adolescents drive only with supervision or restrictions, such as only on familiar routes.

Clarity of language and breaking the learning process into discrete skills that could be practiced independently were important tools used by instructors during behind-the-wheel instruction. As one instructor described when asking a student to “make a left-hand turn,” the student put his left hand out, taking the instruction literally. The instructor consequently modified his teaching cue to be, “make a left turn.”

This example ultimately served to clarify the instructor’s teaching practices for autistic and non-autistic students alike, suggesting opportunities to improve how we think critically about teaching all teens to drive.

Family Feedback Needed

Instructors shared with us how little feedback they received from families about the success of students after receiving specialized training. They often did not know whether students obtained their license or families followed their recommended guidelines around driving restrictions, as well as if students chose to drive.

Such feedback is crucial in helping instructors develop and refine best practices for training autistic drivers. Without it, a gap remains in our understanding of how to support autistic adolescents in learning to drive safely.

Our next steps for this work include conducting in-depth interviews to examine the perspectives of autistic adolescents and their families about the learning-to-drive process. This research will supplement our knowledge gained from specialized driving instructors and allow us to more fully understand the learning needs of these drivers in the transition to independent transportation.

Our goal is to continue to enhance and refine the range of resources available to support autistic adolescents and their families as they make decisions about whether to pursue licensure or not. Mobility is essential in supporting their pursuit of education, employment, and community engagement, all important when transitioning to adulthood. Resources for families are available at Teen Driver Source and CAR Autism Roadmap.

Read the press release

Read the study abstract.