For teenagers everywhere, being mobile means freedom and independence. For many, getting a driver’s license marks an important milestone in their transition to adulthood. For autistic teens* achieving this independence can come with complications. For these teens and their families, it can be difficult to find the support they need to safely navigate the learning-to-drive process or to pursue other ways to become independently mobile.
To help us discover how to provide this support, The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has awarded our team $3.2 million to conduct a five-year study to gain a more comprehensive understanding of mobility issues for autistic adolescents. Joining me on the research team are CIRP colleagues Meghan Carey, MS, Rachel Myers, PhD, and Catherine C. McDonald, PhD, RN, who is also faculty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. We will be partnering with Benjamin Yerys, PhD, of CHOP’s Center for Autism Research, along with colleagues Cynthia J. Mollen, MD, MSCE of CHOP’s Division of Emergency Medicine, and Charlie Klauer, PhD of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) to determine how best to support autistic teens and their families.
It’s more critical than ever that we understand how to support autistic teens and their families as they explore their options and navigate the permit and licensure processes. One in 40 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and about half of those children have average or above average intellectual ability. Currently, one in three autistic teens without an intellectual disability get a driver’s license; yet, we actually know very little about what it’s like to learn to drive for these teens.
How to Navigate Learning to Drive
We hope to help answer the following questions during our study:
- How do families decide if their teen with autism should learn to drive?
- How can we best support families when they decide to pursue driving?
- How can we best support families when they decide not to pursue driving?
- How do teens with autism learn safe driving skills?
- How does the risk of adverse outcomes for teen drivers on the autism spectrum differ from the risk for other teen drivers?
Our study will be the first to use a naturalistic driving approach to focus on autistic teen drivers. Naturalistic driving is an applied traffic research method that provides insight into driver behavior during daily trips by recording details of the driver, the vehicle, and the driver’s surroundings through unobtrusive data gathering equipment and has contributed greatly to our understanding of factors involved in crashes and near crashes. We are also tapping into the knowledge of specialized driver educators, health providers, and families themselves to better understand the learning needs of autistic teens.
I look forward to kicking off this research so that we can help autistic teens live as independently as possible by providing them with the necessary information to get where they want to go.
*Please note that we use "identity first" language as recent research has demonstrated that this is the preferred term in the autism community (Kenny et al., 2016, "Which Terms Should Be Used to Describe Autism? Perspectives from the UK Autism Community" Autism).
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