Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Is Your Asperger’s Syndrome Teen Ready to Drive?
Part 1 of 2
All parents worry if their teenager is ready to hit the open road once they get to that age, but parents of teens with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism have a few extra things to worry about. It is usually not a problem to learn the rules of the road — but applying them in real time situations can be different.
Success depends on how well your child with autism can integrate information, how prone they are to meltdowns if something does not go according to plan (or how well they are able to control or manage these meltdowns), their ability to read and pay attention to the behavior of other drivers, and so on.
In this newsletter, we will discuss the challenges of driving for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, but also the gifts that Asperger’s gives that may actually make many people with Asperger’s syndrome safer and better drivers than the rest of us.
The Driving Challenges for Teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome
1) Sensory integration and information processing
You have to be able to think pretty quickly when you are driving. You have to be able to pay continuous attention and make fast, spur of the moment decisions in unpredictable situations. Some people with Asperger’s syndrome do not have the attention span for this, or get overwhelmed trying to make decisions (when to turn, when to merge, which way to go, dealing with intersections, how to respond appropriately to another behind or in front of them speeding up, slowing down, cutting them off or coming out of nowhere.)
They may freeze and just sit there in traffic, or not even be aware in some cases that they’re supposed to be doing something (such as when it is their turn to turn into a strip mall or at an intersection). This can be a potentially dangerous situation for someone with Asperger’s syndrome.
Other things like sensory integration can come into play. One person with Asperger’s syndrome I talked to for this article said that there was no way on earth she could drive when the windshield wipers were going. The moving back and forth right in front of her eyes, while she was trying to pay attention, bothered her so much that she was barely able to function at all.
Certain factors like if your teen with Asperger’s syndrome will be able to focus with other people in the car or the radio going also come into play. Those with sensory integration problems might also be more likely to have problems with the “everything happening at once” nature of driving.
2) Drivers with Asperger’s syndrome have trouble reading other drivers’ cues.
Drivers need to be able, at least to some extent, to read cues from other drivers. Hand signals give clues to behavior and some people with Asperger’s syndrome may miss these. There is some debate, at least among the autism/Asperger’s syndrome community, just how important these cues are, however. Some maintain that you can predict other cars’ behavior by the speed of acceleration and other such measurements. If you lack this ability to judge this, you are at a disadvantage in driving safely.
3) Over-adherence to rules and resulting meltdowns
Some people with Asperger’s syndrome — but by no means all — have a much harder time bending rules than others. People with Asperger’s syndrome will have no problem memorizing every rule in the driver’s handbook. But they may get extremely frustrated if someone else is not following what they know to be a tried and true rule of traffic. They may find it inconceivable that another person would so blatantly disregard the rules, and the anxiety and distress from this may send them into a tailspin that will affect their driving ability.
What if a sudden storm comes up and the weather conditions change? Only you and your teen can tell whether or not they have the disposition where they can remain calm and adjust their driving to match the conditions.
Most parents of all kids tell their kids “It’s not your driving I’m worried about. It’s what other people may do.” With cell phones and all sorts of modern distractions these days, not to mention drunk drivers, you never know what you’re going to run into.
Now, it goes without saying that no one can predict the actions of a drunk or distracted driver, but it does mean that one has to be able to pay as much attention to other drivers as possible to assess whether or not they are a danger. And teens with Asperger’s syndrome may lack the ability to assess a situation and determine if a driver may be drunk or impaired — and stay away from them.
It is important to remember that the above depictions do not describe everyone with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, in a recent New York Times article about Asperger’s syndrome and driving, the majority of the comments seemed to be in favor of those with Asperger’s syndrome who reported that they had no problem with driving, or from parents who said they were able to teach their kids ways to overcome any problems they might have driving.
In the end, it is highly individual. Whether or not your teenager is able to drive isn’t going to come from an article, it’s going to come from your own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, and their own character make-up.
Some people with Asperger’s have no trouble driving and some do, is what it comes down to. But Asperger’s does lend certain strengths to some people when it comes to driving. We will explore these in our next newsletter, as well as explore some coping strategies for helping those with Asperger’s syndrome to drive effectively.
For additional information and practical tips to help your Asperger’s teenager not only survive but thrive and lead a happy and successful life, see the Asperger’s Syndrome Guide for Teens and Young Adults.