The Autism Blog

Teens with Autism and Driving

May 31, 2019

Welcome to the May edition of Ask Dr. Emily! We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

How can I know if my teen with ASD is ready to start driving?

The decision to start driving is a big milestone for a young adult and their family! Autism is a wide spectrum. For some individuals on the spectrum, driving will be a rite of passage they can explore. For other individuals with autism who have more severe forms of ASD, driving will not be an option due to safety concerns for self and others.

Driving safely (and feeling comfortable doing so) relies on a whole range of skills, and these will all be important considerations in deciding if now’s the time to take on driving. As a very first step, I’d consider this: How does your teen or adult feel about driving? Learning to drive is a longer term project, and they need to be motivated enough to put in the work to learn, and confident enough to take on the challenge.

Most obviously, there are driving’s more technical skills to consider. For example, is your teen able to pay attention to multiple things at once? Can they keep an awareness of the cars around them, whether the traffic light is about to change, and whether a pedestrian is about to step into the road – all at the same time? Can they make quick but safe decisions, and react quickly when something changes? For instance, if another car pulls in front of them suddenly, can they adjust their speed or change lanes safely to avoid it? Clearly, driving involves taking in and managing a ton of changing information! Dr. Emily Rastall (the original Dr. Emily) reviewed some of these skills when a related question arose a few years back — you can see her great advice here.

In addition to those necessary cognitive skills, driving puts demands on our flexibility, our emotional coping skills, and even our social skills. You’ll want to think about how your teen does in other high pressure situations – are they able to stay calm and think clearly? How do you think they would react if they encountered a sudden change, like having to take a different route than planned due to construction or traffic? What about if they realized they were out of gas or having trouble with the car? These larger problem-solving skills will be important as well. Socially, would your teen know how to respond if friends or classmates asked for a ride or encouraged unsafe behaviors (e.g., speeding, texting while driving)? Would they have the social awareness to navigate an interaction with a police officer if they were pulled over for some reason or needed to ask for help?

In the end, keep in mind that learning to drive involves a lot of steps – reading a manual, taking a class, practicing with someone experienced – and there will be a lot of opportunities to coach your teen and give them feedback/support along the way if you choose to take it on. Your school team, occupational therapist, and other providers who know your teen can be great supports as well. But also keep in mind that not everyone learns to drive – autism or not – and that’s okay too. If your fundamental goal is that your teen can travel independently, you can meet that goal in other ways by focusing on public transportation or other options. Dr. Emily Rastall shared some thoughts on this topic a few years ago as well – you can read them here.

Finally, a few resources that might be helpful as you navigate this process:

• Questions to consider when determining driving readiness (CHOP Center for Autism Research)

• Rules of the road: Driving and ASD (Interactive Autism Network)