It’s a question any parent of a high functioning autistic teen would wonder about: when should my young one get behind the wheel?
The answer, however, is not so easy. After all, no two people with autism or any other learning or neurological disabilities are exactly alike.
That said, a recent study by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia examined how parents are approaching this important life skill.
Two-thirds plan to drive
The study found that two-thirds of teenagers with high functioning autism spectrum disorder who are of legal driving age are planning to drive.
A high functioning autism spectrum disorder is characterized by subtle impairments in social interaction, communication, motor skills and coordination and by a difficulty in regulating emotions, according to the Children’s Hospital study. Naturally, these traits can affect drivers who are not autistic as well. That’s especially true for teen drivers.
So what factors should parents take into consideration before allowing their child to pursue driving privileges?
Christine Accardo, the program director of The Shafer Center For Early Intervention in Reisterstown, Md., explains that autism has its own unique challenges.
“Children with autism can have problems reading their environment, trouble solving problems in the moment, and difficulty with non-verbal cues,” says Accardo, who earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. “These can all be complications when behind the wheel.”
She suggests a list of things to review with your potential driver.
“On the up-side, children with high-functioning autism are great rule followers,” she stresses. “Clearly state safety rules, reduce unnecessary distractions and help them understand concepts like ‘the right of way,’ and practice what to do and how to react if another driver acts badly.”
The lead author of the Children’s Hospital study, Dr. Patty Huang, discovered in her research that there were a few predictive characteristics among teens most likely to become successful drivers. These characteristics are the following:
At least 17 years old
Enrolled in full-time regular education
Planning to attend college
Having held a paid job outside the home
Having a parent who has taught another teen to drive
Inclusion of driving-related goals in his or her IEP (Individualized Education Program)
Dr. Huang also suggests that making an appointment with an occupational therapist or driving instructor to assess your child’s readiness to drive.
A new program out of Boston may help parents further assess their teen’s readiness to drive.
DriveAdvise, which is being developed by researcher Jennifer Sabbagh at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston thanks to a grant from Autism Speaks, will include a toolkit and educational video to spur conversations and help decide whether someone with autism might drive now or in the future. The toolkit will have cognitive and perceptual tests, as well as a variety of educational materials to help a family make an informed decision.
Each case needs to be considered individually. High functioning autistic people are likely to succeed with a strong and compassionate support system.
That’s the message in the 2010 documentary called “Autistic Driving School,” which followed a range of young people with autism at different points of progress on their road to driving independently.
The film focused on the Excel Driver and Instructor Academy (Exceldia) in Leicester, England, which is run by Julia Malkin, who is autistic, and her husband, Colin Malkin, who is dyslexic. Julia Malkin received the prestigious Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011 for her work with special needs people.
The unique approach and compassion featured in the documentary can give us all a new way to look at how we learn new skills.