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millennial girl driver behind wheel of car - seven things to help autistic teens drive
  • Posted September 11, 2020

7 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Autistic Teen Drive

Driving is one of the most important milestones an individual achieves in a lifetime. It symbolizes many things: freedom, responsibility, independence and opportunity.  While many parents expect their children to start driving when they are 16 or 17, things get more complicated when their child is on the autism spectrum.

During many workshops I have delivered on this topic, I’ve seen firsthand how many parents don’t know how to help their autistic young adult get their license.  After all, very few school districts help with driving, and finding resources is always a struggle.  I imagine you have your own similar stories and are looking for advice.  How can you motivate your young adult to drive, and how can you find resources that will actually prepare them for an independent life on the road?

Here’s seven helpful things you, the parent, can do to make driving easier for your young adult with ASD.

1.) Know your young adult, and be patient with them

This seems obvious at first, but it can be hard in practice. You must know your young adult’s preferences, likes, dislikes, and personality.  You also need to know that they are processing things the best they can, and that they can sense if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of them getting behind the wheel.  I remember how uncomfortable my dad was when I first started and knowing that he felt uncomfortable made it harder for me to focus.  Even getting used to parking lots was a challenge because of that tension.

This also leads into my point, which is to be patient!  Again, your young adult is trying the best they can to absorb all kinds of new information.  They will likely learn at their own unique pace, and that’s okay.  If you force them to do something that they are uncomfortable with, it is only going to set up unneeded trouble.  You should also try to get an idea of what they’re feeling, and what’s at stake for them.  Whether they need a license to commute to college, get their own apartment, or get the job they want (as was the case for me), the weight of those stakes may give them no choice but to get their license, and that will likely weigh heavily on them.

2.) Be Aware That Some “Helpful” Advice May Do More Harm Than Good

Be careful of what you say to your young adult, because they may interpret innocuous-sounding advice as something else entirely.  For example, when I first began driving, I hated when my dad used the phrase “pay attention” during practice.  Rather than being helpful, all that phrase did was remind me of the challenges that autism brings, my executive functioning difficulties, and the fact that so few people with autism successfully get their license.  I was so focused on the negative connotations of “pay attention” that the last thing on my mind was paying attention to the road!

As I gained more experience — and my license — I managed to get over it.  But when I first started driving, the use of “pay attention” and similar phrases significantly hindered my progress.

3.) Practice From the Passenger Seat

One of the things that The Next Street Driving School (who, full disclosure, is also one of my employers) recommends new drivers with ASD do is passenger seat driving.  Have your young adult sit shotgun and ask them to explain to you what they would do if they were in the driver’s seat. This should include things like: driving directions, looking ahead 12-15 seconds, seeing speed limit signs, lane choice, signaling and emergency situations.  You may even ask them to give you a script for the trip before you leave: “OK, we are going to the grocery store, give me the route and tell me how you will handle any disruptions we may run into.”  Passenger seat driving is a low risk way to get one’s mind wrapped around driving as a concept, and reinforces what your teen/young adult is learning from their driving instructor.

4.) Use Autistic Traits to Your Advantage

I know what you must be thinking: Doesn’t autism making driving more difficult?  While autism can have a negative impact on driving and daily living, you can leverage some autistic traits, like preferences for routines and schedules, to your advantage.  Integrating routine drives into your young adult’s schedule can go a long way towards developing motivation and self-confidence. Prime your young adult by telling them what they should expect before going for a drive, then have them go on a fun errand like grabbing coffee at Starbucks.  Or, you can integrate driving into their existing schedule. For example, I drove myself to my part-time job on the weekends, then began to take on more long-distances drives as I became more comfortable with my routine.

Those errands and routines may seem simple, but the more times they do it, the more your young adult will get comfortable with the idea of driving. These are the exact same techniques special education workers use to improve a skill, and they make a tremendous difference.

5.) Involve special interests

Integrating special interests into the driving experience can help your young adult focus on the road. For example, I listen to music from my favorite video games, like NieR: Automata and Final Fantasy, to help me focus.  You could also try listening to an audiobook from a favorite author or a podcast on your special interest during commutes.  Once you find something your young adult really likes and can utilize without causing any major distractions, it works wonders.  Feel free to experiment and see what works and what does not work for your young adult.

6.) Don’t rush the process

Just because your young adult’s peers are getting their licenses now doesn’t mean that your young adult has to get it now as well.  The truth of the matter is that there is no “magic age” when driving will happen.  I got my license when I was 25 years old; my coworker is just getting her permit at 24.  I’ve met many people that began their driving journey decades after their peers, including one person who was 40!  Their experiences are proof that getting your license is possible at any age.  The worst thing you can do is force your young adult to drive right now — instead, give them as much time as they need to get comfortable with the idea of driving.

7.) Create a support team

Develop a support team with people you can rely on to take your young adult out for driving practice.  They can be a driving instructor, a spouse, a friend, and/or a family member.  If for whatever reason you feel like you must teach your young adult on your own, familiarize yourself with your options.

Having a team was hugely beneficial for me when I learned to drive.  I had a few friends who had no problem helping me get used to parking, I had an instructor I talked to when I did driver’s ed, and I had other friends I went to for support.  I would not be driving — and teaching others how to get their licenses — if it weren’t for them. There is no shame in having a team help you out. Plus, it grants your young adult supports they can reach out to on their own.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Driving can be hard, especially when you have autism.  However, it is possible. Being patient and knowing your individual’s preferences can make a difference in instructing them. The good news is that there is going to be a new resource in Connecticut with The Next Street. They are making a brand-new program for the autism population. I am directly involved with that program’s development as well. Currently, one of my many roles as an autism transition coordinator is doing driving consultations with parents like yourself and individuals. If you ever need to get direct input for this topic, I can be reached at arboea@planningacrossthespectrum.com.


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