Learning to drive is something most teenagers want to do. It is a common theme for teenagers to want a driver’s license and set out on their own. But how do you know it is safe for your teenager when they are on the autism spectrum? How do you know they are ready for such an important milestone?
Most people can learn to drive, including people who have high-functioning autism or Asperger’s. It may, however, take more than mom and dad to make this happen.
First, face the typical fears of people learning to drive––which can include parallel parking, concern about hurting the car or someone outside the car, and how to know what other drivers will do. But when you have a teen with autism, your concerns might include visual-spatial deficits, difficulty understanding right from left, understanding and judging depth and speed, and being able to focus on multiple sensory experiences.
Next, start with your school team, including a driver’s education instructor. Have a discussion with them to help determine if your child is capable of driving a car. Include details on motor skills, visual/motor tasks, and their distractibility.
Then have your teen apply for a license at the normal legal age. They must document that they are on the autism spectrum on the application at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It's against the law not to, but it won't disqualify them for getting a license.
Ask other parents to recommend a good driving instructor and sign your teen up for lessons. Ask for extra driving practice to get used to normal driving situations. Let your teen practice with someone they know, someone who will remain calm and make it more comfortable.
Practice driving on neighborhood roads and work your way up to busier streets. Stay in the neighborhood until your teen is completely comfortable driving there. Drive along familiar routes as often as possible. New roads and not knowing where you are going can be distracting and upsetting.
People with autism tend to strictly follow signs and the rules of the road. Be ready for when other drivers break the rules of the road and help your teen remain calm. Explain that people will break the laws and that they as a driver, have to be prepared to react appropriately and drive defensively. Let the police take care of the driving of others.
Here are tips to help your teen stay on the right track:
Learning to drive is a personal and individual task; it may take one person several months and another one a year or more. Take the time needed for your teenager to learn it right.
For additional topics on teenagers with disabilities, go to Teenagers with Disabilities on this website.
Some parents hold their children back from independence and freedom, feeling that they are protecting them. The truth is that their children cannot grow if they are stuck in their parents’ comfort zones.
Jennifer Allen has created a program to help make driving safer for drivers who have problems with communication.