Obtaining a driver’s license or gaining proficiency in public transportation is a major accomplishment that supports long-term independence goals for all neurotypes. For neurodivergent populations, however, learning to drive or actively driving daily can be a stressful process that potentially contributes to the low prevalence of independent autistic drivers at about a 24%-34% rate (4).
Autism and other neurodivergence may certainly amplify the common challenges faced by all drivers, but they don’t have to limit the transportation potential of individuals. With a few tailored accommodations and strategy modifications, driving with autism can become more common and accessible.
Possible Challenges of Driving With Autism
Driving is one of the most stimulating and high stake activities, especially for neurodivergent individuals, but research has shown that autistic individuals actually have lower or similar crash and legal violation rates compared to allistic drivers (1). This may indicate that the varying challenge levels experienced by neurodivergent drivers don’t necessarily correlate with their driving competency.
The challenge domains experienced by autistic drivers are also not exclusive to their neurotype, but they can manifest differently through the following ways:
- Executive Function: Difficulty with prioritizing attention, reacting efficiently and appropriately to stimuli, managing distractions, and physically implementing driving decisions.
- Flexibility With Unpredictability: Rigidness in deviations from routine, such as unexpected road closures or weather events, can make driving anxiety-producing due to its inherent unpredictability.
- Emotional Regulation: Autistic drivers may need individualized training to be able to safely manage emotions from road rage to anxiety caused by an unexpected event.
- Social Assessment: Interpreting and actively using non-verbal gestures or body language can be difficult for drivers with autism. Hand signals for “passing” or aggressive driving behaviors may not be automatically recognizable to drivers, and as a result, need to be manually taught.
- Sensory Needs: Autistic drivers with Sensory Processing Disorder or varying sensory needs may need to build tolerances to uncomfortable driving conditions including sitting for long periods, indoor car temperatures, sunlight, and loud sounds.
- Driving Fear and Anxiety: Anxiety is common in autistic populations, which often exacerbates the fear of driving itself (4). Anxiety about the responsibility of controlling a vehicle or the experience of catastrophizing thoughts, in general, may form an avoidance response to driving if not addressed early on.
- Cost and Accessibility: The monetary and time cost of contracting a driving instructor, in addition to procuring the vehicle itself, is a challenge for every driver. Autistic drivers face enhanced difficulty in this domain due to the challenge of finding an autism-aware instructor.
It’s important to note that these areas may not be challenging for every driver, and there undoubtedly exist more challenging domains beyond what has been listed. However, awareness of these potential challenges can help novice or experienced autistic drivers better understand and advocate for their needs.
Progressing From Permit to Pavement
Factoring in the potential challenges of driving with autism into the prerequisite licensing process can make it appear insurmountable starting from the permit exam to the dreaded parallel parking test. On the other hand, it can provide an opportunity to educate stakeholders on effective teaching strategies while helping autistic drivers develop skills to better identify their personal needs.
The goal takeaway for all beginner drivers is that they should follow the rules of the road as best they can, while also anticipating the reality that not everyone adheres to the same practices at all times. Furthermore, autistic drivers need to understand that every scenario is different and not everything can be prepared for or taught, in other words, the skill of adaptation is necessary for their driving safety.
Some tips for driving instructors or autistic drivers in training for optimal driver’s education are to:
- Study driving manuals to prepare for the prerequisite permit exam and to build familiarity with road signs, driving terms, and traffic laws.
- Enlist the support of a neurodivergent-aware professional, driving instructor, or family member that is familiar with the learner’s communication styles to tailor driving lessons.
- Build skills in emotional regulation, impulse control, and problem-solving to manage varying road conditions and distractions. This can also involve learning how to safely adjust vehicle settings while driving to minimize distractions, such as modifying the car’s temperature, radio volume, or window opening.
- Practice recalling knowledge of road signs and driving maneuvers accurately in real-time, either while driving or riding in the passenger seat.
- Start in a low-risk area such as an empty parking lot to build confidence and skill before progressing to residential areas, cities, and highways.
- Practice reaction skills for a variety of scenarios including u-turns, lane switching, passing vehicles, merging on highways, and sudden stops.
- Identify optimal focus conditions such as driving in silence with the air conditioning turned on or driving while listening to music with the windows open.
Driving With Road Stressors
After passing the driver’s license exam, neurodivergent drivers have the next challenge of applying their skills independently. The inclusion of skills training, safety kits in vehicles, sensory preparations, and possible usage of technologically advanced vehicles with driving assistance can greatly help when driving with autism.
Of course, not everything can be anticipated but proactively addressing the following areas can offer great value for drivers with or without autism:
- Accidents: Reviewing the steps to follow after a minor or major accident including insurance disclosure, police or EMT assistance, and socially appropriate responses when multiple parties are distressed to prevent escalation.
- Traffic Stops: Having vehicle and licensing information readily available for law enforcement, as well as practicing the social skills needed to maintain safety during a traffic stop. This can include neutral body language, hand placement, and speech modulation.
- Weather Conditions: Practicing driving through diverse road conditions like black ice, heavy rain, or fog.
- Significant Road Changes: Building distress tolerance and sensory coping skills for remaining in the same position for an extended period of time due to road work, traffic, or road closures. Hands-free sensory items like chewable necklaces or a soothing podcast can aid as well.
- New Routes and Directions: Developing proficiency in using navigation programs and previewing new routes before driving when possible can be useful.
- Parking Variations: Practicing getting into and out of all types of parking situations like garages, street parking, and standard lots. Additionally, being prepared with different payment methods and location notation steps for returning to the correct parking location.
Vehicle Demands and Responsibilities
Driving adeptness is often proceeded by the use or ownership of a vehicle, most often a car. Undoubtedly, this provides a huge amount of freedom, but it also provides a significant level of demand for those driving with autism.
The demands of owning a vehicle can include the time obligation and monetary responsibility of car repairs, maintenance, gas fill-ups, annual vehicle inspections, and regular state registrations. As well as the financial onus and organizational stress of monthly insurance fees, car loan payments, and occasional traffic violation tickets.
However, autistic drivers can certainly manage these responsibilities by budgeting, setting calendar reminders for important dates, and seeking support when needed.
Transportation Alternatives and Adaptations
If driving brings more stress than benefits or if operating a vehicle is not feasible for any number of reasons, then there are transportation alternatives to allow autistic individuals to continue working towards independence.
Some cost-effective alternatives can include public transportation, rideshare apps, government-funded pickup services, carpooling, or asking for transportation from friends/family. Biking, walking, and different vehicle types may also be solutions in developed areas. Additionally, remote options for work, appointments, or social engagements can be reasonable adaptations to reduce driving frequency or transportation costs.
However, these methods can come with their own set of challenges like managing transportation costs, learning to navigate public transportation systems, or limiting opportunities as a result of transit availability. Alternatives may also not be entirely practical, particularly if remote options are limited or if public transportation systems are not readily available. Additionally, the self-limiting of driving opportunities can potentially lead to an anxiety avoidance response around driving.
As a result, driving can at times be a “necessary evil” to some neurodivergent individuals due to non-accessibility to alternatives, but recognizing challenge areas can help drivers work through them to find solutions, such as driving on select days and using rideshare methods on other days.
Driving With Neurodivergence
Driving with autism does not automatically come with challenges, but its difficulty prevalence does signify the larger need for better training and accessible transportation options for neurodivergent adults. Individualized driving support that serves wide age ranges and neurotypes can ultimately help new drivers gain independence, especially when programs work with differences as strengths rather than weaknesses.
Driving or transportation is essential for autistic people, and with a combination of insight and patience, it can also become commonplace for autistic people.
Amairani Asmad is a freelance writer with a B.S. in Rehabilitation and Human Services. She is a strong advocate for diverse communities and uses her own experiences to write inclusive content.
- CHOP News. (2021, January 28). Newly licensed autistic drivers crash less than other young drivers. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. https://www.chop.edu/news/newly-licensed-autistic-drivers-crash-less-other-young-drivers
- Fok M, Owens JM, Ollendick TH and Scarpa A (2022) Perceived Driving Difficulty, Negative Affect, and Emotion Dysregulation in Self-Identified Autistic Emerging Drivers. Front. Psychol. 13:754776. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.754776
- Lubin, A., & Feeley, C. (2016). Transportation issues of adults on the autism spectrum. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2542(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.3141/2542-01
- Mary J. Baker-Ericzén, Lauren Smith, Anh Tran, and Kathleen Scarvie.A Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Driving for Autistic Teens and Adults: A Pilot Study.Autism in Adulthood.Jun 2021.168-178.http://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0009
- Sheppard, E., van Loon, E. & Ropar, D. Dimensions of Self-Reported Driving Difficulty in Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults and their Relationship with Autistic Traits. J Autism Dev Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05420-y
- Wilson NJ, Lee HC, Vaz S, Vindin P, Cordier R. Scoping Review of the Driving Behaviour of and Driver Training Programs for People on the Autism Spectrum. Behav Neurol. 2018 Aug 28;2018:6842306. doi: 10.1155/2018/6842306. PMID: 30245750; PMCID: PMC6136574.