Experts Say Be Strategic
The thought of your teen climbing behind the wheel of a car is nerve wracking for all parents. How can you be sure they’re ready? There’s no one size fits all template for teaching new drivers all the skills they need to safely hit the gas.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia say when it comes to teens with autism, they have clear strengths and a series of specific challenges when it comes to learning to drive.
The instructors stress the importance of providing specialized, scaffolded instruction where skills are taught one at a time. This allows the student to master one skill before adding a new one. These approaches help young autistic drivers develop driving skills over time supported by caregiver-supervised practice.
According to researchers, instructors say some of the specific challenges facing autistic drivers are being overly rule-bound, becoming easily distracted, and having difficulty integrating what other drivers are doing with their own hand-eye-foot coordination required to drive. They say these challenges can be overcome through careful skill-building instruction over a prolonged period.
The strengths of autistic drivers include carefully following the rules of the road, paying close attention to their driving environment, and limiting risk taking.
Besides breaking down driving tasks into discrete learning goals, instructors used a variety of strategies to build driving skills, including having teens sit in the passenger seat and describe what the driver is doing, and repeated practice on the same driving routes to reduce anxiety.
Instructors also stressed that autistic drivers should be prepared for experiences they may encounter outside the vehicle, such as changing a tire or interacting with law enforcement. After getting licensed, some instructors may recommend autistic adolescents drive only with supervision or restrictions, such as only traveling on familiar routes.
Having little to no experience riding a bike can also make it harder for teens with autism to learn to control the vehicle
“This difficulty could contribute to challenges in controlling speed, maintaining lane position, and managing oncoming traffic. Caregivers should find ways to promote these life skills and hand-eye-foot coordination skills before beginning the learning-to-drive process.” says Benjamin E. Yerys, PhD, study author and a clinical psychologist at CAR.
Recent research conducted at CHOP found that newly licensed autistic drivers have similar to lower crash rates than their non-autistic peers. Additionally, young autistic drivers are much less likely to have their license suspended or to receive a traffic violation.
The instructors interviewed for the study are trained as occupational therapists, driving rehabilitation specialists or licensed driving instructors who completed additional training related to teaching autistic individuals to drive.
Jackie Gailey Raible
Editor in Chief