Driving A Hard Bargain
Medscape Today News  yesterday published a video on the topic of teen drivers with autism. Entitled “Should Some Autistic Teens Drive?," the roughly four-minute piece features Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention  at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) discussing research on teen drivers and offering some suggestions in thinking about whether a teen with ASD should begin driving.
As the parent of two young adults who drive, I can attest to how hard it is to navigate this issue well. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage in the US, viewed as the first step toward independence. For ASD families, it can be more than that—it can be an indicator of “normalcy.” So an already complicated decision is often muddied by emotions. Autistic teens and young adults may have their own conflicting feelings about driving, from eagerness to severe anxiety. (Two of AA16’s columnists, Benjamin Kellogg  and John Scott Holman , have written about their decisions to postpone driving.) Neither of our sons was ready to drive at age 16, and so we waited. It wasn’t a popular decision, nor a convenient one, believe me. But it was the right one for our kids.
My response to this video (and the embedded link to teendriversource.org ) is that it’s a terrific launching pad for families and professionals to start talking about ASD and driving. It’s crucial for autistic teens and young adults and their parents/guardians to think carefully about driving readiness and to have honest conversations about how the decision to drive will be made. Having a conversation with your teen will tell you a great deal about how she views the process of learning to drive. Just because a teen can pass a driving test doesn’t mean she’s ready for the road. As the video points out, there are a number of challenges often specific to autism that may hinder the ability to drive safely. Thoughtful decision-making regarding readiness is crucial and could be life-saving. There’s no shame in postponing or foregoing driving—for anyone.
While a great conversation-starter for families, this video is actually intended for physicians. Transition educators would do well to give it a look also. Parents frequently seek guidance from professionals about driving readiness for kids on the autism spectrum. So professionals in the position of dispensing this advice should have something thoughtful to say. While there’s increasing research available regarding trends in driving among young people with autism—Winston references a CHOP study  on characteristics of autistic teens who drive—much of it is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it tells us who’s driving, but not what works in helping autistic teens become better drivers. It would be great if professionals would help families of potential drivers look at the issue carefully, neither dismissing driving as out of the question, nor assuming that intelligence predicts driving ability. Winston provides some solid ideas, such as adding driving preparation to IEPs, having the teen evaluated by an occupational therapist (check with your private insurance company for OT coverage), and hiring a professional driving coach. (I can personally attest to the value of a good professional driving coach. Well worth the expense.)
The one thing that concerns me in all of this is how policymakers are hearing this conversation as it appears more frequently in the press. The easy road for legislators will be to create blockades to driving for young people with ASD rather than mapping out avenues for the acquisition of greater driving skills. We all know bad driving can be deadly, and many people with autism shouldn’t drive. But you don’t have to have autism to be a bad driver. There’s nothing wrong with increased rigor in evaluating who should be given a driver’s license, but let’s make sure we don’t simply shine the light on people with autism. Plenty of conditions impact one’s ability to drive. And since not driving can severely limit the ability to function as an adult in the community and often impacts employability, if we’re going to hand out fewer driver’s licenses, then let’s do so with an eye toward more available and reliable public transportation.
Deciding when and how to move forward with driving lessons for a young person with autism can be difficult. I urge parents to take your time and engage in conversation with your teen before you feel forced to make a decision. I urge professionals to contribute to this dialogue with thoughtful advice that keeps the individual and specific family in mind and to help families access supportive services. And finally, for any teens reading this, please do not use your cell phone while driving. But do use it afterwards to let your mother know you arrived safely!