For young people on the spectrum and for their families, this is a BIG question.
Our son is almost 21 now and has had his driving license for two years. So we are able to reflect back on our decisions at the start of his life behind the wheel. And there are definitely some things we wouldn’t do again.
Here are our family’s top tips for people who are wondering whether learning to drive is for them.
No need to rush
We waited until our son was asking to learn to drive. This happened when he was almost 18, much later than his peers.
When he was younger I sometimes encouraged him to do things that his peers were doing but which he wasn’t ready for, like joining sports teams. That was all about me not him.
So these days there’s no rush, when he is ready to make some change he asks by himself.
Does your son or daughter really need to learn to drive?
This depends on where you live of course. Our house is deep in the Sydney suburbs and a long way (uphill!) from the nearest bus stop. It makes our son’s life so much easier to drive. It makes mine and my husband’s much, much easier too.
Our son drives to his supported workplace four days a week. It isn’t actually a long drive, maybe 15 minutes. But it would take over an hour if he went by public transport plus walking to the bus stop.
We gave him lifts up and down to the bus stop for years and it’s splendid not to, especially since we are still flat out with the younger kids.
Know the driving laws in your state or territory
It is important to understand that young people on the spectrum do need to disclose their disability if it will affect their driving. This is the law and not following it will void car insurance so you do need to be honest.
This may mean there are hoops to jump through. Our son had a visit with his GP who signed the form to say he was competent to drive. Our GP has had to see our son and revalidate that annually since then. We feel this is reasonable.
Friends of ours have had to do tests with occupational therapists to check whether they were ready to start driving.
For all the info on your state or territory read the Learning To Drive pages for young people and families/carers on the Autism Launchpad website here.
Find a driving instructor with experience of ASD
In our family we decided to pay for 10 driving lessons before we started teaching our son ourselves. This was really expensive but saved a lot of stress for us.
We had heard of a driving instructor who had taught a friend’s son to drive and so we got in touch with him and had a chat.
He was super patient, and had seen it all before. He also shared our son’s great passion for heavy metal music so the lessons got off to a great start.
I was a bit phobic about starting to teach him myself. Luckily there is a government scheme called Keys2Drive which provides a free driving lesson to all learners. A parent/carer is encouraged to sit in for the lesson too.
I did that with our instructor and managed to get over my hump.
Break down steps into small parts
Just like everything our son has ever learned, it was easiest done by breaking down all tasks into small parts and teaching them methodically.
I would ask our lovely instructor what things we should work on as we build up the driving hours bit by bit.
Passing the driving test
It took three attempts with plenty of space in between each one. Anxiety was an issue and in the end what worked was for our son to have a lesson just before the test started.
The strengths of drivers with ASD
I know I can’t really generalise, but I think our son would share many autism strengths with others. He doesn’t speed because he likes to follow the rules. He never drinks and drives. His visual spatial skills are good. He remembers road rules much better than I do.
A few bumps in the road
Actually the bumps were in the car, to be honest. Our son has reversed into a post in a car park and also into a brand new car when coming out of our drive. He also scraped the side of the car once.
The car insurance is very expensive for young drivers anyway and the excess is too. So this is where we somewhat regret our son driving when he can’t afford to cover all these costs himself.
Great advice from a friend
Keep a simple checklist of what to do if you have an accident, laminated and in the driver’s door pocket.
Where to next?
Well, our family is about to have some big changes. We are not really able to afford to subsidise our son’s driving for much longer.
He is currently not earning enough to buy and run his own car (and the logistics of registration and insurance would also be very difficult for him.)
We are also planning to move house at some stage this year. It would work best for my son to live very close to a good public transport hub. He is great at using public transport and then wouldn’t need to use a car.
So for our son, the driving may not be his main mode of transport in the future, at least for a few years.
When he is able to afford to run a car himself, then he can think about getting his own one. We will support him with all the logistics around that, of course.
In the meantime, he can borrow our car sometimes, especially when we’re asking him to drop off or collect his younger siblings or to drive up to the shops to get milk or bread!
Driving With Autism Resources
Ability2Drive if a specialised driving school in Victoria offering a variety of driver education, driver support and, of course, driving lessons, for people with a disability. Read more about Ability2Drive here.
Autism Launchpad’s Learning to drive pages have detailed information for young people and their families here.
The National Autism Society in the UK has a really useful webpage here about driving which I highly recommend.
Writer and autism mum based in Sydney, she runs the popular website Hello Sydney Kids for light relief.