Autism and driving: How ASD affects driving, and resources to help

A teen wearing glasses grips a steering wheel sitting in a car’s driver’s seat, while an instructor points from the passenger seat

Many of us have no trouble learning to drive. We’re able to easily recognize signals and road signs and react safely in typical driving scenarios.

For someone with autism spectrum disorder, driving may not be as easy to learn. The wide range of symptoms can present unique challenges to drivers with that diagnosis, and typical drivers’ training programs aren’t always equipped to help.

How is driving with autism difficult?

Autism can affect many of the skills we need to drive. Common symptoms of autism that can make driving difficult include:

  • Motor coordination challenges – the steps needed to change lanes, staying in a lane, turning the steering wheel smoothly, moving their foot from gas to brake quickly enough and pushing the correct pedal to accelerate or stop
  • Delayed decision-making skills – knowing when to safely make a left or right turn at intersections
  • Problems with executive functioning – multi-tasking and knowing how to respond when something unexpected happens, such as road construction
  • Prioritizing critical information – At intersections, it can be hard to evaluate the color of the traffic light, whether all cars have to stop, and if pedestrians are crossing the street – it’s a lot of information to take in and prioritize. Also, it can be harder to decide what to do when an unexpected event happens on the road, such as road construction.
  • Difficulty communicating – verbally or nonverbally
  • Taking instructions – Many people with ASD take instructions extremely literally.

If a sign uses an idiom to communicate what a driver should do or look for, the message may not be obvious to an individual with autism. If they’re stopped at a four-way intersection and one driver waves them to go ahead, someone with autism may not correctly interpret that.

Helping people with autism learn to drive

If you have autism, learning differences of any kind or physical challenges, you can get driver’s training with occupational therapists through The Occupational Therapy Driver Rehabilitation Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

In the program, we commonly see clients on the autism spectrum having trouble taking the visual or physical steps for a lane change. They may also have a hard time recognizing or reacting to aggressive drivers, or they may react too slowly to traffic lights or unexpected hazards.

Many clients with autism know the rules of driving extremely well, but because they interpret instructions literally, it’s difficult for them to know when it’s safer and wiser to break a rule.

For example, if you’re approaching an intersection at full speed and are already committed to crossing when the light turns yellow, it’s safer to continue. Someone with autism may be more likely to slam on their brakes before crossing, risking being rear-ended.

Strategies for helping drivers with autism

At Ohio State, the occupational therapists in our Driver Rehabilitation Program are licensed driving instructors and certified driver rehabilitation specialists.

The program’s staff incorporate typical driving instruction with individualized strategies to help those with unique diagnoses. Staff members know to avoid sarcasm, slang or figurative language for clients with autism, and they’re trained to give clear, step-by-step instructions.

Break down skills into smaller steps

We run through simulations of common driving scenarios, breaking them down into smaller steps to reduce frustration. If clients want or need to drive particular routes, we practice driving those routes over and over to build skills and confidence.

Offer running commentary

To introduce new routes or to help clients develop observation and recognition skills, a client might sit in the passenger seat while the occupational therapist gets behind the wheel and notes aloud the signs, traffic lights, pedestrians and other critical observations needed to drive safely.

Prepare for emergencies

What should you do if you feel anxious or panicky? What if you’re in a wreck or other emergency situation? What about when you’re being pulled over?

The occupational therapists review calming strategies for these scenarios, when to call parents or other members of a support system, and the specific steps to pulling over for law enforcement.

In Ohio, law enforcement officers have access to a registry listing drivers who reported to the state that they have a communication disability. When law enforcement officers run someone’s license plate or driver’s license, they can see the name on that registry, and they’re trained to interact in a way that accommodates that person’s needs.

Can someone with autism become an independent driver?

Each autism diagnosis is unique, so the potential for independent driving will vary. For some people, the medical symptoms are too profound for them to become a safe driver. The staff can work with these clients to help them navigate public transportation.

Some clients have particular routes they want to be able to drive independently. When they have a new route to learn, they return to the Driver Rehabilitation Program to practice with our occupational therapists.

Other drivers with autism are able to drive independently within a certain radius of their home. Still others need just a little help fine-tuning their skills. After some training, they’re able to drive anywhere on their own with confidence. Each client gets an in-clinic evaluation and an individualized plan of care.

Almost everyone can become a better, safer driver with help from occupational therapy. Driving skills help many of our clients find employment, be more social and enjoy a fuller life.

Autism can make it hard to drive

We can help.

Learn more


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