autism spectrum disorder and driving

Autism Spectrum Disorder & Driving

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects social, communication, and behavioral skills. 

In addition, individuals with ASD may experience:

  • coordination deficits
  • anxiety 
  • limitations in concentration 
  • executive function challenges including problem solving or judgment

Driving requires all of the above-mentioned skills and abilities.

On average, it may take longer for an individual with ASD to learn to drive (Almberg et al., 2015). Time, patience, supportive instructors, as well as specialized training techniques, may lead to successful outcomes. 

It is also important to recognize that not everyone with ASD has difficulty learning to drive. Similarly, not everyone with ASD will be able to overcome the challenges associated with learning to drive.

Challenges for ASD drivers

Coordination deficits may make it difficult to regulate speed through curves, hills, and turns. In addition, timing of when to turn the steering wheel for right and left turns and how much to rotate the wheel can be challenging.

Understanding non-verbal cues is a common challenge for individuals with ASD. Brake lights, turn signals, back-up lights and taillights are examples of non-verbal communication. 

Why is it important to educate drivers with ASD?

I work with many novice drivers with ASD, and most do not know how to distinguish the different lights and why they are important. Education and opportunities to practice generalizing their knowledge to different vehicle makes and models can help overcome these challenges. 

In addition to lights, drivers communicate by their behavior such as tailgating. Autism may make it difficult to recognize that a driver is tailgating.

Essential skills for driving

Searching the roadway is one of the most essential skills for driving. 

Effective search skills require 

  • attention
  • scanning
  • understanding what to look for on the road

Research studies have concluded that individuals with ASD may have different visual search behaviors compared to their peers without ASD. 

Individuals with ASD may focus on the horizon versus scanning for immediate hazards like brake lights of the car in front (Reimer et al., 2013; Chee et al., 2019). 

Other research found that compared to their peers, individuals with ASD may have difficulty prioritizing the information on the roadway to know what requires their primary attention (Sheppard, et al, 2016; Chee et al., 2019). 

Prioritization is essential for guiding the drivers’ decision and ultimately their reactions. Many of the drivers with ASD that I work with tell me that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of visual information.

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About Drive Focus

Drive Focus is a great tool to help you develop hazard awareness and defensive driving skills both for new and experienced drivers.

Picture of Dr. Miriam Monahan

Dr. Miriam Monahan

Dr. Monahan is the founder and director of the Driver Rehabilitation Institute and a leader in the field of cognition and driving.