Life Skills – Driving and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Research in the area of mobility of people with other disabilities shows the ability to get around enhances health, improves overall quality of life, and promotes participation in the community. It can also lessen the need for government assistance because if one has a job, there is a way to get there.

Driving involves using the prefrontal cortex, the area where executive functioning occurs. Executive functioning involves planning, setting priorities, inhibiting impulses, and examining the consequences of actions. Most teens do not have maturity in this area; people with ASD have impairments in executive functioning. Individuals with ASD have difficulty imitating others’ movements or gestures or planning a series of steps to carry out an action in its entirety all at once. This task is often achieved in smaller steps. No one knows what techniques would be ideal to teach these skills I have mentioned as there has been no research done.

We know attention to detail is a strength of people with ASD. Weak central coherence theory says individuals with ASD tend to focus on details rather than overall meaning of information. Driving involves having to take in many details all at once and make sense of them – a crosswalk, flashing pedestrian lights, a bus on the side of the road with blinking signal lights, school and playground zones. One can see all these things within a few feet of each other. They have to be noted and the appropriate action taken.

There is also the hidden curriculum – rules of a society that are not written out but understood by people. When a person is crossing the street, they should first meet the eyes of the approaching driver to know that they have been seen before stepping out into the street. There are distracted drivers using cell phones or eating who may not be using their signals to turn or pass. Stay well behind those drivers. Elderly drivers may be driving under the speed limit or lane drifting. A good driver is able to read the language or hidden curriculum of traffic. Where I turn to get onto my street everyday, there is a lane where on-coming drivers cross over into that wrong lane to pass traffic and come at me head on. I know when I have to stop and let them pass even though they are in the turning lane and breaking the law.

Other things to consider about driving readiness in individuals with ASD are emotional regulation and the ability to focus. Many people with ASD have anxiety issues. Some have difficulty focusing, are taking medications, or have other medical conditions such as seizures. Driving can also be stressful, particularly in cities where there are daily accidents, lane/road closures and traffic jams. Weather conditions can also add challenges to driving. We face many of these in Canada with our tough winters. All of these things have to be taken into account because they impact driving.

A strength ASD drivers do have is the adherence to rules and regulations. They follow the road rules better than typical drivers. The problem is, typical drivers are the ones bending the rules and the person with ASD may not have the flexibility to alter the rules if someone else is putting them at risk for an accident. Four way stop signs are a good example of this because some drivers do not go when it is their turn.

There really is no research on driving and ASD so parents and young adults have to make the decision about driving together. Using the public transportation system should still be taught for those days when the car is in for repair or the weather makes it too challenging to drive. There is a new organization called Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism whose mandate is to set a national agenda for housing, employment, and community life opportunities for those on the spectrum. Perhaps some research on driving will be conducted by that organization in the future.

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