While we know that driving can help teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) lead a more mobile and independent life, we know little about their driving experience. That’s why I, along with my co-authors, conducted the first longitudinal study to determine current rates and patterns of licensure among adolescents and young adults with ASD. The study was recently published in the journal Autism.
We conducted a unique linkage of more than 52,000 electronic health records (EHR) of children born from 1987-1995 residing in New Jersey who were patients of the CHOP Pediatric Healthcare Network and NJ driver licensing data to describe these driving outcomes for adolescents with ASD (without intellectual disability) and those not on the autism spectrum. The key findings have implications for parents, clinicians, driving educators, and researchers:
- 1 in 3 adolescents with ASD received an intermediate license by age 21.
- The majority of teens with ASD who receive a license do so in their 17th year, just like other teens.
- 90 percent of teens with ASD and a learner’s permit received an intermediate license within two years.
Our research suggests that families are making the decision of whether their children with ASD will pursue a driver’s license before their teens even get behind the wheel of a car with a learner’s permit. Since teens with ASD who receive their learner’s permit are getting licensed at nearly the same rate as other teens, we believe that their families are committed to seeing the process through to independent driving. We need to provide them with the support they need as they make this transition.
We want to learn how we can best support capable drivers with ASD who want to drive so that they can safely navigate the roads and stay connected with their communities more easily.
Support for Families
Although further research is needed to understand how families make this driving decision and how clinicians and driving educators can best support them, here are some tangible recommendations from my co-authors: Patty Huang, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at CHOP, and Benjamin E. Yerys, PhD, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Autism Research at CHOP:
- Parents should start the conversation about driving with their child early. A healthcare provider can help to guide that conversation with questions regarding readiness to drive. During this visit, be sure to address any concerns, such as attention issues.
- Parents may want to consider seeking the advice of a certified driver rehabilitation specialist who has training in working with individuals with special needs or an occupational therapist who specializes in driving.
- If their teen with ASD has some symptoms of ADHD, parents should consider medication options with their child’s healthcare provider.
- When beginning parent-supervised practice driving, be sure to log plenty of hours using evidence-based programs, such as the TeenDrivingPlan Practice Guide, created by the Teen Driver Safety Research team at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Our previous survey with parents of teens with ASD showed that their children were more likely to be licensed when parents had previously taught a teen to drive.
- Clinicians should encourage families to add driving-related goals to their teen’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) one to two years before the permit stage and to seek extra support from the school.
- Driving is an important part of leading an independent and fulfilled life, but there are other ways to ensure safe mobility for teens with ASD. Resources for families to help their teens with ASD transition to adulthood are available at The Center for Autism Research at CHOP, including and article on Driving and ASD: Determining Readiness.
Other crucial information needed to inform programs to help teach teens with ASD lead a more mobile life include:
- the extent to which adolescents with ASD get licensed and how their driving outcomes compare
- whether families feel informed and supported while making driving decisions
- how families are affected by not driving
- the extent to which healthcare providers or driver educators are involved
I am excited to be leading this new line of research to learn how we can best support capable teens with ASD who want to drive so that they can safety navigate the roads and stay socially connected more easily.