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Should Teens With Autism Drive?

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Most teens with high-functioning autism are behind the wheel or are planning to be, according to a first-of-it-kind study.

What’s more, those who are driving appear to be faring better safety-wise than their typically developing peers.

The findings are based on a national survey of nearly 300 parents of teens ages 15 to 18 with a diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified. Teens who were also diagnosed with intellectual disability were not included in the research, which was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics this month.

Of the teens with autism who were already driving, about 12 percent had received a ticket or been involved in a crash. Meanwhile statistics show that 31 percent of all teens have gotten a ticket and 22 percent have been in an auto accident.

The researchers suggest that the lower rate of problems among drivers with autism could be because these teens are sticklers for rules or because parents of those with the developmental disorder are more restrictive with driving privileges.

“Over the past decade, the rate of children diagnosed with (ASDs) has increased, meaning that more of those kids are now approaching driving age. Car crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers, so it is important that we understand how (ASDs) impact driving and how to develop appropriate educational and evaluation tools,” said Patty Huang, a developmental pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the lead author of the study.

Researchers found that among teens with autism, drivers are more likely to be those who are at least 17-years-old, attending regular education classes full-time and planning to go to college. However, these teens were unlikely to have any IEP goals pertaining to driving, which the study authors said presents a missed opportunity in transition planning.

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Comments (22 Responses)

  1. Paula C. Durbin-Westby says:

    I am glad the article is not really about whether or not Autistic teens “should drive.” If a person can pass a driver’s test the same as other people, then they should be permitted to get a license, with no discrimination due to neurobiological differences. I saw the request for participants in the study and noted that it asked parents of teens, not teens themselves, about driving habits. Instead of speculating about why teens on the spectrum seem to be a bit better drivers, the researchers could have asked them directly. Although the driving age in my state was 16, I did not get my license until 17, even though I had a learner’s permit. I did not pass the parallel parking part of the test, and waited a number of months between each test. I am fortunate to be able to drive because it keeps me from having to rely on less-than-reliable public transit, friends, etc. I think one of the reasons that teens on the spectrum could be less accident-prone is that we are very careful, since driving does not always come naturally to us and we need to really work at it. Of course, there are Autistic teens for whom driving would be easy to learn, and many of us who can’t drive. Non-autistic people have a wide range of driving habits and abilities, too.

  2. fairlady68 says:

    Probably the high-functioning ASD kids are doing better at driving because they are less likely to be involved in the risky social behaviors that can lead to accidents among young people. As a 54-year-old ASD, I am actually finding driving becoming more difficult as I age. I am nervous on the freeway, and I have always had a problem finding my way around unfamiliar streets. I would be interested if other autistic adults feel the same way.

  3. Amber Stankis says:

    What most concerns me, as the mother of a teenage boy on the spectrum, is how he may/will react if he is pulled over by a police officer. I believe we will have a “deer in the headlights (probably should say flashlight!) type of reaction and be misread by the officer. It scares me to think how his anxiety could be read as guilt or that he may argue any wrong-doing. I’ve heard of some police departments educating officers on ASD. I wonder how many police officers will recognize it in real life situations?

  4. msamericanpatriot says:

    I was misdiagnosed as learning disabled as a child. I got my Aspie diagnosis at 39. In my 20’s I got my license to drive but gave it up when I fell asleep at a stop light. I was awoken by another driver laying on the horn. I was tired from a horseback riding lesson. But I am working to be able to drive again. I had one ticket for a moving violation but other than that no. I say let the drive if they want to.

  5. LT Osborne says:

    My PDD-NOS 18 year old is driving for the first time this year. His father and I do not condone this but since he is a legal adult and refused allowing us Guardianship, he is able to do what he wants as he explores his identity as a man. When he drives with an adult present he is a safe driver. Our concern was that he would not be able to contain his temper, see potential accidents, or respond quickly in a rapidly changing environment. His sister has riddden with him once (She says “never again”), and the way he drives without another adult present is not the way he drives the rest of the time. It is a miracle that he has not had an accident. He is not a safe driver and her stories confirm our fears. His ability to slam on the brakes is what has saved him so far.

    So far.

  6. Joanna S. says:

    My son is almost 24 and has had his license since he was 16. He is an excellent driver, probably better than his NT brothers, although I am aware of many with Asperger’s or HFA in our area who do not drive (we do have an excellent public transportation system). As far as Amber’s comment in regard to potentially having to deal with a police officer, he has a card that fits behind his license in his wallet that we got from our state Autism Society organization that tells the basics of his social deficits. He has not ever had to use it and by now he’s fairly adept socially but he knows it’s there if he needs it and knows that if he gets pulled over or ever has to deal with law enforcement that it goes with the license automatically.

  7. Tacitus says:

    What most concerns me, as the mother of a teenage boy on the spectrum, is how he may/will react if he is pulled over by a police officer. I believe we will have a “deer in the headlights (probably should say flashlight!) type of reaction and be misread by the officer. It scares me to think how his anxiety could be read as guilt or that he may argue any wrong-doing. I’ve heard of some police departments educating officers on ASD. I wonder how many police officers will recognize it in real life situations?

    “Looking guilty” is not an offense prosecutable by law. Your kid cannot be arrested unless there is concrete evidence of law-breaking.

  8. Tanya says:

    My 17 year old dx with HFA just got his permit but is still too anxious to drive but is getting driving training from Lakeshore, who work with autistic individuals and helps them greatly in this area. He is in regular classes and is planning on going to college, however, he is not driving yet. We to have considered guardianship of our son but are not certain what is best for him….He is a stickler for rules but is overly cautious and anxious, he has exceeded all our expectations before, so I have no doubt he will with this also. I know all parents worry when their kids start driving but it is hard for me to imagine him driving off on his own.
    I attended a class recently about first responders and those on the spectrum, ideas given where having a card or info laminated for them to give to them with their liscense, insurance, etc. explaining they are autistic and parental contact info if needed. Also, taking them to the police station to get to know them and feel more comfortable with them.

  9. Glen says:

    An individual’s privilege to engage in most of life’s freedoms should not be a matter of diagnosis. If they can pass the test and the vehicle can be appropriately augmented (preferably at the owner’s expense), they should be able to drive. If you have reason to believe that some one is unsafe, you can report the concern to DMV who (in most states) have ways of determine if a person is safe to be behind the wheel.

    But just because you’ve had an IEP in the past or get an SSI check, you should not be limited in your daily routine by the law.

  10. Katzedecimal says:

    *Bad* choice of title, very ableist. Since I’ve been driving for 36 years without an accident or a ticket, perhaps the title should be “Should Neurotypical Teens Drive?”

  11. Zachary says:

    High functioning Autism not if you have certain episodes that you have a hard time consetrating its not such a good idea. Driving calls for focus and consetrating.

  12. Jo VerMulm says:

    I share the sentiment of Amber Stankis a few posts down from mine. My son who has HFA/Asperger’s was hit by a car while riding his bike to school when he was 13. The speeding car hit him as he passed through an intersection clipping his back tire. Miraculously he was alright but after fielding questions from me and the paramedics he became frustrated answering the same questions of the police officer. I explained to the policeman that my son has a form of autism and was having a hard time talking–frankly he had just been hit by a car, was in shock as would ANY person of ANY ability. The officer wrote in his report that my son “SUFFERS from autism” and was the sole cause of the accident! The driver of the vehicle actually tried to sue us for damages to her car! Thankfully we were protected by our homeowner’s insurance and our insurer went to bat for us but our case went to arbitration and we were found to be 70% responsible chiefly because of the remarks made by the officer in the report. My point is, I have immense confidence in my son’s abilities to follow the law but I have little confidence in the ability of others to interpret and evaluate his abilities and motives.

  13. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

    I’m more than a little shocked that the editors of Disability Scoop would use such an alarming, ableist headline for an otherwise excellent piece. What’s next: “Should wheelchair users drive”? Can we please get beyond giving power to stereotypes and simply acknowledge life in all its complexity?

    Please consider changing the headline. Many people will see that headline, assume the answer is “no,” and not even get to the article.

  14. Kathleen A. Whelan, M.F.A., LLC says:

    I had to weigh in on this Study Involving Teens with Autism Driving, because of my experiences with young adults and familiarity with their driving habits. About half of the young adults that I know do not drive. This is because they either have limited attention spans, or anxiety/panic disorder issues. Those factors are critical in weighing the pros and cons of teen driving. Most of the young adults I know who do drive, do so on a highly limited basis, like no night driving, only local driving, no highway driving, etc. One of the young adults I know has been in multiple accidents due to distraction caused by having a passenger in the car who is chatting and causing the distraction for the driver, and other distractions while needing to make quick decisions.

    This issue is complex, and warrants the consideration of the teen’s neurologist, psychiatrist, and/or family physician. When any individual is behind the wheel, they are not only putting their own life at risk, but the lives of others on the road. As parents, particularly those of us who are guardians, we need to take great care in weighing the pros and cons of teen driving for our young adult children on the spectrum, and understand that driving is a privilege, not a right.

    With limited access to public transportation here in southern New Jersey, and limited availability of transportation options, coupled with the importance of employment and self-sufficiency for individuals who desire to live independently, the option of driving becomes a slippery slope that must be carefully weighed, not primarily out of convenience for the parent/chauffeur, but with great care and civic minded thinking about the safety welfare of the teen with autism and that of the general public.

    Complex driving patterns, road configuration, navigational challenges, and route congestion pose more challenges for individuals living in high density population areas in New Jersey and other metropolitan areas, than in many areas of the US like more rural areas of Ohio, where the roads are mainly straight, drivers less aggressive, and fewer quick decisions are necessary because congestion is significantly less.

    Moss Rehab Center has a driving school division that can assess the appropriateness/readiness of individuals who wish to drive. That is a valuable tool in assisting parents in making the decision about driving readiness/appropriateness. They can also teach driving skills to those who pass the readiness test. In my opinion, parents of “typical” and more challenged teens need to consider many factors before handing over the keys, set ground rules and boundaries (like no texting and limiting passengers) to keep their driving teens and the public at large safe on the road.

  15. Roland says:

    I’m 22, with Aspbergers. I’ve had one ticket for speeding in my 7.5 yrs of driving, and no crashes.

    However, I would attribute this more to my mother giving me strict rules on driving, rather than being a stickler for rules. One of my hardest things to do is notice stop signs… However, one of the easiest is to notice all the cars around me, and know where they are even before I check my mirrors.

    As well, some of my ‘main rules’ are:
    • People can’t be talking to me in the car
    • Never talk on the phone, even with a headset
    • Don’t listen to the radio, unless it’s just background noise – engaging songs distract
    • And, for the longest time, I was only allowed to drive alone on routes that I already knew like the back of my hand.

    These rules are what I’d attribute the lack of tickets/crashes to, more than anything else. The number of times I would have missed a stop sign, or driven through a red light, had these rules NOT been in place, is a lot higher than I assume most other people my age can claim.

    As for more specifics – I got my permit at age 15 and a half, which was as soon as permitted in my state. I had worked for the five years before to show that I was mature and ready for the responsibility of the driving. When I took the test, I passed both the driving and the written with mere points to spare… Not something I’m proud of. However, I think this study could have done better in terms of comparing ‘ASD teens’ to ‘Normal teens’, as to which are safer drivers… I think any teen given the same sort of precautions and training I had would be as safe a driver or safer. However, that’s personal opinion.

  16. Julie says:

    I think the decision to drive should not be based on a diagnosis but rather a young adult and his or her parents deciding if they are mature enough to handle the responsibility. I didn’t drive till I was 19 (I have ADHD and Dyslexia) but the reason for the later age is due to maturity – nothing else.

    @Amber – You may want to have your son carry a card in his wallet that has his diagnosis and a very brief explanation that he can hand over to an officer so that his behavior is not seen as him being under the influence, being sketchy or anything else that may trigger an officer to pull him out, pat him down, etc. Of course your son needs to understand this is a possibility and he needs to understand how to behave should this happen. If you have any friends (or friends of friends) who are officers, maybe they can talk to your son and walk him through what a traffic stop would be like?

  17. Rise' says:

    What experiences have others had with high functioning persons with Down Syndrome driving?

  18. CBE says:

    I have two adult children – one with Aspergers and one with high functioning autism. Neither drives yet though one has his temporary license. I feel both negligent and yet afraid for many of the reasons you all have stated – reactions to stimulus on the road and stress from other drivers – and i hadn’t even thought about what might happen if one of them was pulled over by a police officer! My 20 yr old autistic daughter will often break down in tears when she feels “humiliated” even in a college classroom i can only imagine how it might play out. My big issue is that i can find or see no resources to help these young adults learn to drive well with their particular issues. There seem to be no programs or autism specialists who offer their services as trainors and i am fairly certain the standard driving programs will not suit my own two after doing some research. 30 hrs of classroom time and 10 hrs on the road? Not for my Aspi 22 yr old son – it needs to be the other way round for him. All that classroom time would drive him (and his instructor!) crazy! Any ideas or suggestions out there?

  19. Nancy says:

    My teen is driving on a permit now, practicing for his license. I worry about him daydreaming while driving, as he has a tendency to retreat into this often at home. Otherwise, he is a good driver. Coming along at the same pace as his NT older brother.

  20. James says:

    I was not in the study, but I have High Functioning Autism. I have been a licensed driver for 9 years, since age 18. Before that, my stepfather started teaching me to drive on empty parking lots, set up with improvised courses. I’ve never had a ticket, and one accident where I was rear ended while at a stop sign. Last year, I drove alone in my new car (my third vehicle), 2,200 miles from Las Vegas, to Charlotte, NC, doing so in only 2 days. I also have over a dozen trips between the San Francisco Bay Area, and Las Vegas, 620 miles. All total, in only 9 years, I’ve likely driven over 500,000 miles between work, cars not belonging to me, and long road trips. The first vehicle I drove was a stick shift, and was a Flat Bed Tow Truck belonging to my moms tow company we used to own. You name it, I can drive it. If it has tires, I can operate it quite well.

  21. Christopher E says:

    I was autism with deaf started 3 year old. I was 21year old learn permit drive for one year then I got passed test road and get license then first car 1991 Oldsmobile 88 in 1998. I got two tickets for high speeding in 2000 and 2005.

  22. Angela says:

    ‘What most concerns me, as the mother of a teenage boy on the spectrum, is how he may/will react if he is pulled over by a police officer. I believe we will have a “deer in the headlights (probably should say flashlight!) type of reaction and be misread by the officer. It scares me to think how his anxiety could be read as guilt or that he may argue any wrong-doing. I’ve heard of some police departments educating officers on ASD. I wonder how many police officers will recognize it in real life situations?’
    “Looking guilty” is not an offense prosecutable by law. Your kid cannot be arrested unless there is concrete evidence of law-breaking.’

    Actually some police officers are just jerks. My brother is on the spectrum and he was pulled over and did exactly this…deer in headlights…and although they couldnt arrest him they certainly made things hard for him…cuffed him, searched him etc….it was sad.

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