Teaching the Person With Autism HOW to DRIVE
By Kathie Harrington M.A. C.C.C. SLP
While driving on my way to an appointment I was cut in front of three times. I steered clear of a car that was edging over my way to avoid an accident. I saw a near miss when a car ran a stop sign. I pulled over for a siren but cars passed me who didn’t bother to follow that law and I had cars honk at me for going the posted speed limit in a school zone. Were all of those drivers autistic?
I’m sure not. Were any of those drivers autistic? I certainly doubt it. What those drivers did not do involved language: predicting, sequencing, following directions, problem solving, and turn taking. So can a high functioning/Aspergers person with autism learn how to drive a car? Can they follow the rules of the road? Can they learn the language that is necessary in order to lead safe, responsible, independent lives? Can a speech-language pathologist assist the person with autism in their pursuit of driving? The answers to all of the above are YES!
Any professional involved in teaching driving skills to persons with autism should always get the approval of the team in order to determine if driving is realistic for this person. If driving is not a possibility, other means of transportation should be investigated in order to give the person with autism as much independence as possible.
The speech/language pathologist (SLP) has a great deal to offer either during individual or group models of therapy for the person with autism who is learning how to drive. (If other transportation such as mass transit is determined to be more realistic, the following language skills will still need strengthening.) Language skills such as vocabulary, predicting, sequencing, turn taking, rote memory, map skills, telephone and telephone book skills, and problem solving are all important parts of being a safe, responsible driver. The following list identifies resources for teaching necessary skills for driving. This list is not all inclusive – be creative!
* brochures from car dealers,
* auto mechanic books
* state driving test booklet
* insurance policies
Predicting – a variety of therapy materials for predicting
* what comes next,
* what is missing,
* or what if…situations
* maps, (before this street – after that street)
* a variety of therapy materials for sequencing that utilize both visual and auditory responses
* Actual pictures of buildings and landmarks that will be passed in any given destination
* board games such as Connect Four and Checkers for teaching rapid, defensive
* Hot Wheels to practice four-way stops
* state driving test booklets that teach the laws and assist in passing the written test
* map reading – city maps and bus route maps and schedules
* for emergency phone calls and how to get directions
* telephone book
* local phone books for looking up addresses/phone numbers and businesses
* role play a variety of situations such as “What if this happens”?
* utilize functional problem solving therapy materials
Typical developing peers who have experienced driving would be beneficial for role playing and discussions of real life situations. The SLP should maintain group focus and keep the person with autism actively involved. All of the therapy materials and outside resource materials must be kept meaningful and functional in order for learning to take place. Teaching driving skills is a wonderful opportunity for the SLP to reinforce social/pragmatic language skills. It also affords the SLP occasions to guide the person with autism to become aware of the feelings, motivations, and knowledge that the other drivers are experiencing. (Theory of Mind) Other professionals and parents can also reinforce and practice many of the above suggested techniques. These will take as much rehearsal as possible. Why do I doubt if any of the drivers from the first paragraph were autistic? Because people who are autistic would not cut in front of another driver. They would stop at every stop sign and perhaps wait there longer than they should. They would never go over the posted speed limit and yes, they would have pulled over for an emergency vehicle right along side of me.
I know that people with autism can learn to drive. My son is 28 years old. He is autistic. He doesn’t go over 35 miles per hour most of the time. He doesn’t go in reverse unless he is forced to. He plans every lane change and turn before he leaves the house. He checks his seat every time he gets in with a ruler to make sure that it is the same distance from the steering wheel. He turns on his radio at stop lights only. If he has a passenger, he talks at stop lights/signs only. He drives himself to work, the athletic club and the mall. I don’t ride with him too much, but I can smile about it because my son is independent. Doug drives.
Kathie Harrington,M.A. C.C.C. SLP, is a well known national speaker and author in the area of autism. She has written; For Parents and Professionals: Autism – LinguiSystems, Inc. and For Parents and Professionals: Autism in Adolescents & Adults – LinguiSystems, Inc. She is owner of the private practice “Good Speech” in Las Vegas, Nevada which specializes in autism and developmental language disorders. She can be reached at:
3850 E. Flamingo, PMB – 118,
Las Vegas, NV 89121
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