Autism is a serious developmental disorder that can affect social interaction, communication skills, learning skills and more. Autism is thought to affect roughly 1 in 59 children in the United States, making it a relatively common health concern. But what about autism and driving? Can autistic people drive?
Formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), autism can affect different individuals in a number of ways. It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, rather than a definite set of symptoms and characteristics. Many people with autism go on to lead productive, happy lives, while others struggle significantly. Driving is similar – some autistic drivers have no difficulty with life behind the wheel, while for others driving can be a huge challenge. The guide below will explore driving with autism and serve as a resource for individuals with ASD and parents of autistic teens.
Are There Legal Restrictions on Driving with Autism?
In the United States and most other countries, there are no legal restrictions relating to autism and driving. So long as the individual can pass the required tests and demonstrate safe driving behavior, they are permitted to obtain a driver’s permit and eventually a driver’s license. Keep in mind that driving laws do vary from state to state, so you’ll want to check with your local department of motor vehicles for details.
There is a lot of existing research on the relationship between medical conditions and driving. While some conditions like visual impairments can legally bar individuals from obtaining a driver’s license, most other medical conditions do not.
Safety Concerns with Autism and Driving
Although there are no laws against driving with autism, there are some genuine safety concerns that must be considered. Driving can be a stressful, difficult task at times – for anyone. Autistic people may struggle more to adapt to rapidly changing situations, or to handle the multitasking that is often required for safe driving.
Benjamin Yerys of the Center for Autism Research notes that “ASD can affect decision-making, information processing and attention to varying degrees.” Clearly, these three skills are vital to safe driving, so there is warrant for some concern.
Some symptoms of ASD that can potentially cause issues while driving include:
- Impaired decision-making
- Slowed information processing
- Short attention span
- Repetitive and hyperactive behaviors
- Impatience and frustration when a routine is interrupted (i.e., traffic)
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Lack of coordination
- Aggressive behavior
Given that autism is a spectrum, the existence and severity of the above symptoms will vary significantly from case to case. Likewise, the safety of driving with autism is highly dependent on the individual’s symptoms and overall level of functioning.
This video, produced by the Center for Cognitive Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, does a good job of explaining some of the difficulties faced by autistic drivers:
Ultimately, parents of autistic teens must make an informed decision – with the input of their teen and ideally their teen’s doctor – about whether or not to pursue a license. “We need to understand what resources, specialized instruction and other supports might be helpful for teens and adults with ASD who are considering or preparing to drive“, says Yerys, noting a need for individualized considerations on a case-to-case basis.
Scientific Research on Autism and Driving
Despite the prevalence of ASD, it wasn’t until recently that we had definitive scientific research looking into the relationship between driving and autism.
A 2017 study published in the journal Autism looked at the relationship between autism and driving with a large sample of New Jersey teens. Researchers cross-referenced the medical records of over 50,000 NJ teens with state driving records, identifying 609 teens that had been diagnosed with ASD. Some key findings included:
- 34% of teens diagnosed with autism (but without intellectual disability) obtained a driver’s license. Non-autistic teens earned driver’s licenses at a rate of 83%.
- 89.7% of those autistic teens progressed from a learner’s permit to a intermediate driver’s license within 2 years. This compares to 98% of teens without autism.
- Teens with autism took, on average, 9 months longer than non-autistic teens to progress from learner’s permit to intermediate license.
Interpretation: This study highlights the fact that a large percentage of teens with high-functioning autism are driving. It also tells us that, given the high success rate, most families with autistic teens are doing a good job of deciding on a teen’s potential to drive before obtaining a permit. Lastly, it shows that teens with autism take longer, on average, to learn the required driving skills – or that parents are simply more cautious in the learning process.
A smaller study published in 2012 in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics used a national survey involving 297 parents of autistic teenagers. The study looked at teens with high-functioning autism and no other diagnosis of intellectual disability. Some important findings included:
- 63% of teens surveyed were currently driving or planned to drive
- 29% of age-eligible teens were currently driving
- 12% of teens had received a ticket
- 12% of teens had been involved in a crash
Interpretation: This study was relatively small, and potentially flawed due to the self-reported data collection methods. However, it still offers some interesting perspective. Namely, it reinforces the fact that driving with autism is quite common – nearly 30% of participants were currently driving, and over 60% planned to drive. Again, keep in mind that this study only looked at individuals with high-functioning autism and no intellectual disability.
Interestingly, crash and ticket frequency for autistic teens was actually lower than the general teenage population. This suggests that high-functioning autistic teens may be safer drivers than the average teen – although researchers noted that the difference may be attributed at least partially to stricter parental rules related to driving.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders looked at 78 adult drivers with ASD and a comparison group of 94 adult drivers without ASD. Participants, aged 18 to 60, were asked to complete a questionnaire about driving habits, self-imposed restrictions, safety records and traffic violations. Key findings included:
- Individuals with autism reported significantly lower ratings of their ability to drive, compared to the non-ASD control group
- Autistic adults reported more accidents and traffic violations than their non-autistic counterparts
- Autistic participants reported more self-imposed restrictions, such as avoiding freeways and driving at night, than the control group
Interpretations: The results of this study suggest that adults with autism experienced more difficulties with driving behavior than non-autistic drivers. It also suggests that autistic drivers may engage in more problematic driving behaviors, as evidenced by the higher rate of traffic violations and accidents.
With that said, the results of this study can be interpreted in a few different ways. For one, it’s possible that adult drivers with autism are simply more honest than the control group. The rate of self-imposed restrictions by autistic drivers also suggests an increased self-awareness among the group, which may imply a more cautious approach to driving.
Keeping Autistic Drivers Safe on the Road
If you are on the autism spectrum and are preparing to learn how to drive, or if you’re a parent to a would-be driver with autism, there are some things to keep in mind. Here are some tips to consider before moving forward:
Each case is different – Autism is a spectrum, and the severity of the disorder varies greatly. Some autistic people can drive safely with no more training than the average person, while other autistic individuals simply should not get behind the wheel for safety reasons.
Professional advice is recommended – Before an autistic teen applies for a driving permit, it’s wise to make an appointment with the teen’s family doctor to discuss concerns relevant to driving, such as attention issues. Families may also wish to work with an occupational therapist with a driving focus, or a driving instructor experienced in working with special needs individuals.
Start very slow – Many autistic individuals can become overwhelmed easily, and may not respond well to stressful situations. New drivers should always start the learning process in wide open spaces without other drivers – and this is especially true for autistic drivers. Find an empty parking lot to practice basic driving skills to get comfortable before moving on to public roads.
Balance safety and independence – The decision to drive or not is really a balancing act between independence and safety. If the autistic individual desires independence and/or has a definitive need for a vehicle (i.e. a job that requires one), that should influence the decision to obtain a driver’s license – but it should never override safety concerns. The safety of the autistic driver and others sharing the road should always be the top consideration.
Use available resources – There are many nonprofits, governmental agencies and private support groups that may be able to assist. We urge parents and autistic individuals to utilize all the resources at their disposal. Programs like DriveWise work specifically in the realm of safe driving with impairments and disorders, while hundreds of other programs provide general support to individuals with autism. This Resource Guide from Autism Speaks is a great place to start.
If you have any questions about autism and driving, or if you would like to share your own experience with the topic, please leave a comment below!