Driving and Autism


Editor’s Note – The following article was written by Linda Griffin, Parent Advocate Director for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

I had hoped that my son would learn to drive. And then I hoped that he wouldn’t. Either way, there were going to be consequences. Not driving meant learning to use public transportation and certainly involved advance planning if public transportation was unavailable. Not driving also meant considerable inconvenience for me as the parent. And so, I was both thrilled and terrified the day my son finally (at age 27) got his driver’s license.

I joined the legion of mothers who worry about their children as drivers. Unfortunately, belonging to this group does not ward off bad stuff. Two weeks ago, I received a call from my daughter who informed me in a tense and broken voice that she was on her way to the scene of a traffic accident involving her brother and that we should come as well. My heart sank. My fear had been realized. That was the bad news.

The good news is that neither he nor anyone else had been hurt. Everything else was only broken metal and plastic which could be replaced or repaired. Moreover, everyone involved – the other drivers, the police – was unbelievably kind. One lady came over to my son and said, “Now don’t let this scare you off from driving. I had a wreck exactly like this when I was 18 and it shook me up. But I kept on driving.”

All that being said, I still belong to the “Nervous Moms of Children Who Drive” club. I’m not the first member, nor will I be the last – whether the kid has autism or not – whether the kid is under OR over the age of 18. I imagine many of you are or will be in the club with me. But here are some tips for those of you who are considering the day your child with autism may drive a car:

  • Don’t push your child to drive. Respect any reluctance or anxiety. It may be inconvenient and a lot of work, but teach your child how to access public transportation and/or arrange transportation for necessary travel.
  • Driver’s Education does not have to be the “traditional model” as offered through the public high school. Investigate other options such as a private driving school where the emphasis may be more on making the driver comfortable and successful. With private instruction, sometimes the only other person in the car is the instructor – which can lessen anxiety.
  • To obtain a driver’s permit, you only have to take a written test. The driving test is only necessary when going for your driver’s license. You can renew your permit as many times as you want. Some individuals may have no problem with the written part but might feel more comfortable waiting to take the driving test and getting their actual driver’s license much later.
  • Investigate the possibility of accessing a driving simulator/assessment through Driving Rehabilitation Services which serves the state of NC. Check out their website: www.driver-rehab.com
  • Encourage your prospective driver to talk to others who have gone through the experience. Remind him/her that if he/she does not pass the first time the driving test can be taken again – actually many times – AND many people do not pass on the first try. Here’s where a good social story might be helpful.
  • Using a GPS can be especially helpful for individuals on the spectrum due to the visual and verbal cues it can provide. Anxiety may be reduced when interstates or busy routes can be avoided.
  • Put a notebook or index card in the glove compartment with instructions on what to do and who to call in the event of an accident.
  • If an accident happens, try to keep yourself calm and reassure your child that accidents happen. That’s life.
  • Give your child the opportunity, encouragement, and support to stretch themselves.

One other part of this story you might find interesting and helpful is this: the Autism Society of North Carolina has stickers for the car window that states “Person on Board with Autism.” After we gave our son his car, he took one of those stickers and placed it on the driver’s side rear window. It surprised me and, to tell the truth, I winced.  I said, “I saw your sticker. Why did you want to put that on your car?”

With his typical logic, he answered, “I have autism. If a policeman stops me, I might not know what to say.” Although I verbally admitted that it was a good idea, I thought to myself, “Yeah, well, the policeman probably won’t think it’s the driver that has autism.”

Now fast forward to the unfortunate car accident: smashed cars, shaken drivers, tow trucks, ambulance and police are, at long last, sorted out and the scene is clearing. Among all the chaos and jangled nerves, I had witnessed a very kind and courteous police officer. He patiently and gently kept my son informed every step of the way. Before he drove away, I went over to him, shook his hand, and thanked him for being so kind to my son. The officer said, “When I arrived, I saw the sticker in your son’s car window. I figured he had autism and I needed to cut the chatter.” God bless that officer… and HOORAY for autism awareness!

Linda Griffin can be reached by email at lgriffin@autismsociety-nc.org.


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