Driving and Young Adults with ASD: Parents' Experiences

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
1:00 PM
N. B. Cox1, R. E. Reeve2, S. M. Cox3 and D. J. Cox4, (1)Clinical and School Psychology, Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, (2)Curry School of Education, Clinical and School Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, (3)Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, (4)Departments of Psychiatric Medicine and Internal Medicine, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

Learning to drive an automobile is an important step toward independence for most young adults. Social, vocational, and educational opportunities are substantially enhanced when individuals are able to transport themselves to and from activities. Given the symptoms with which they often present, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may experience an unusual degree of difficulty in acquiring driving skills, thus potentially limiting their independence.  While driving challenges in youth with ASD are a fairly frequent concern expressed by parents, a review of the literature yielded only one empirical study specifically addressing this issue (references available upon request). This preliminary research provides evidence that individuals with ASD may encounter substantial challenges in learning to drive, and thus may require specialized training to drive safely.


Given the paucity of research regarding driving skills and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), the current study sought to gain a better understanding of the process of learning to drive with ASD.  In order to improve our understanding of the nature and extent of the difficulties individuals with ASD experience in learning to drive, we conducted an on-line survey of parents of adolescents/ young adults with ASD who were currently engaged, or had recently participated, in the process of learning to drive.  


The research team created an anonymous and voluntary Internet survey entitled “Learning to Drive with ASD” via Survey Monkey. The research team developed the survey questions based on similar driving surveys created by one of the authors for different populations (e.g., novice drivers with ADHD).  Links to the survey were disseminated to a variety of regional and national ASD-related organizations that interact with parents of adolescents/young adults with ASD. These organizations then distributed the survey link to their constituents via email, website, social networking site, blog, discussion forum, email newsletter, and/or physical flyers.


Results from 123 respondents provide clear evidence that gaining the skills necessary to drive a car is a significant challenge for many adolescents and young adults with ASD. While individual skills such as speed control and maintaining lane position are relatively easier, more complex skills, such as merging into traffic or multi-tasking, are very challenging for the sons/daughters of most respondents. In response to open-ended questions regarding beneficial strategies, participants provided suggestions that may be useful to others who seek to teach these skills.  Furthermore, a majority of respondents indicated that their son/daughter with ASD does not consider their condition as having a significant impact on driving.  This suggests that teens and young adults with ASD may not be willing or able to monitor and modulate their actions according to varying driving environments and road-way conditions.


Given the characteristics of individuals with ASD, parents and others involved in driving instruction may need to be particularly aware of the difficulties these individuals experience in the following: interpreting the actions of other drivers (e.g., reading their non-verbal social cues), managing unexpected changes in the driving environment (e.g., encountering road-way hazards), and sustaining attention throughout an extended drive.

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