(The second in a series in which I discuss problems in modern society which may contribute to stress, anxiety and depression among autistic people)
About two years ago it came to my attention that many autistic people have problems with driving, a skill which is necessary for most people in modern society. I learned this when I tried to hire some other autistic people for snow removal and they could not accept the job, since they did not have driver’s licenses. I was shocked, because I expected that most adults would have driver’s licenses and I was doubly shocked, because I am autistic and I also drive. But, on reflection I recognized reasons why driving could be hard for many autistic people.
One main reason why it may be difficult for people on the autism spectrum to learn to drive is that some of us have very poor motor skills and coordination. Although there are technologies available to accommodate people with certain disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from driving (e.g., assistive technologies for paraplegic people), no such technology appears to exist to accommodate people with poor motor skills. Unfortunately, unless such technology is developed, some autistic people may never be able to drive.
More generally, I think our society makes it harder and more stressful for autistic people to drive in a number of ways. At least in Manitoba, the law allows for people to create conditions that make driving more stressful. There are certainly a few situations that will make driving more stressful and more difficult to learn for people on the autism spectrum.
For those people on the autism spectrum who are physically able to drive, we are frequently stressed by the behaviour of irresponsible drivers. Additionally, there is the risk of hitting people, mainly children, who attempt to cross the road at a dangerous time and place. In many places, there is also a risk of hitting large animals that wander onto the road, which poses yet another hazard. Finally, there is also a risk of hitting dogs and cats that are left unsupervised.
Of the two main reasons why driving could be difficult for people on the autism spectrum, the first (coordination issues) is unfortunately unpreventable and - at least with current technology - cannot be solved. However, the second reason (stressful driving conditions) could be controlled by stricter enforcement of already existing traffic laws - for example installing more cameras to clamp down on traffic violations or installing more crosswalks, so people could cross the road more safely at a designated spot. Additionally, more parents could keep a closer eye on their young children to prevent them from crossing the road at a dangerous location; if necessary, very young children should be kept on a leash to prevent this. Barriers could be installed so wild animals could only cross the roads at an easily predictable location. Also, more strict enforcement should be used to make sure cats and dogs are not allowed to run around unleashed in public. Finally, I would propose banning leaving landscaping materials, such as bricks and dirt on public roads, so they won’t be an obstacle for drivers.
Additional resources that could help autistic drivers involve accommodations during driver training. For example, computer driving simulators could be used with no risk of accident early in training. If possible, autistic people could learn to drive using unregulated vehicles on a closed course with supervision. If they are able to learn to drive an actual vehicle, whoever is instructing them should train them in the smallest vehicle possible, since small vehicles are generally easier to control. Once they are fully licensed some autistic drivers may consider restricting themselves to smaller vehicles, if they have no need for a larger vehicle. Additionally, autistic drivers could self-regulate where and when they drive, in order to drive safely.
These are some examples of how some autistic people could be accommodated when learning to drive as well as when they are driving. Apart from the proposed accommodations, there may be other strategies that could be explored to help autistic drivers. Input from readers would be welcome in the comments section.