Behind the Wheel with Autism: A Personal Perspective

Having lived in several different cities, I can attest that it most certainly is not a regional thing: you’ll run into idiot drivers no matter where you live. It isn’t profound at all; many casual conversations begin with a gripe about traffic on the way to someplace or another, or end up there eventually. Driving is a serious source of stress for many, even under the best circumstances. And for people diagnosed with Autism, they are already functioning under decidedly less than the best of circumstances, and the idea of getting behind the wheel can cause anxiety.

I found that I did not have a great deal of difficulty behind the wheel. Having a nice, large, rarely-traveled stretch of land to practice on, and taking as many opportunities to practice, is the first thing I recommend for those who are diagnosed and want to drive. It certainly helped me. After enough practice, it became second-nature.

 

Contrary to the assumption that driving is the natural enemy of the Autistic because it demands multi-tasking, it really isn’t so difficult as all that. It has a nice and structured set of regulations, and your task is simple: start at one location, and control the vehicle in order to safely reach the next. Anyone who has ever played a game, whether analog or digital, can tell you that while rules and setup are intimidating at first, once you see how it’s done and try it for yourself, it isn’t as hard as all that.

To the Autistic person who wants to learn to drive but feels rather intimidated, just think of it as a video game.

Yes, you have to keep track of your position, your life meter, your equipment, environmental hazards and your teammates, but in the end, it’s not an impossible or even overwhelming task, and after a while, things that seemed foreign and challenging become natural. You may even have a lot of fun behind the wheel.

But the most important advice I have to offer concerning Autistic drivers goes not to the Autistic themselves, but to everyone else. Parents, be as encouraging as possible. Start with simple maneuvers, leave parallel-parking for the very end, but again, most important of all, find that nice big vacant plot of land and practice there, where it’s safe and there are as few distractions as possible.

I did in fact reach a point where I could drive comfortably on a crowded freeway in hundred-degree heat and no air conditioner and with the radio on, but clearly these are not the ideal conditions for a beginner. It’s also very important to be as straight-forward and calm as possible. The term “back-seat driver” exists for a reason: when your passenger starts freaking out, or becoming rude or angry, it creates the perfect setup for a collision.

As a student driver, I had the misfortune of having an instructor who purposely gave me false instructions to see if I would catch them from what the book said, then subsequently freaked out and yelled the instant I made the slightest mistake. It just so happened that she became unable to instruct for the rest of that course, and therefore I never had to drive with her again…because another student she was riding with got involved in a traffic collision (I can scarce imagine why).

Thus, parents, and all instructors: don’t try to fool a student driver, and don’t freak out over the smallest thing, because your Autistic driver will mirror your behavior.

We’re trusting you to teach us, not to trick us. Give us guidance and instruction to be model drivers, don’t try to scare or confuse us by giving us misinformation about how to control the vehicle. That’s how accidents happen.

Recently, I was invited to a panel discussion where someone brought up the very serious and necessary point of how emergency response teams and law enforcement officials absolutely need to be aware of the condition of Autism, and to be educated in the ways of how to interact with people diagnosed with this condition. As a person who has been pulled over several times, I can attest to the great necessity of these measures, and strongly commend any and all activist groups working towards this important goal.

It’s been my experience with several other individuals with Autism that meltdowns and panic attacks are infrequent, and rarely if ever become violent. In fact, my whole life experience up to now is that neurotypical persons tend to display far more aggressive if not outright violent behavior. But, I don’t know what every person with Autism is like. No doubt there are people with hair-triggers, who lose their cool at the slightest thing, or just don’t handle the average tasks of daily life as well as others tend to.

For me, personally, when someone asks me a question, no matter what the circumstances, I tend to put thought into my response. It might seem like I’m stalling or spacing out, but in reality I’m deeply engaged in what’s being asked of me, and wanting to prove how seriously I take their question by thoroughly considering the best possible answer.

Of course, in a situation where a person armed with a loaded handgun is asking you questions, or speaking so rapidly it’s difficult to understand what they’re even saying in the first place, or immediately suspecting the worst of you because that’s what they’re trained to do and expect, it’s a very stressful situation, in which there seems to be no obvious best answer. Trying to point out or explain your actions could come across as arguing, having a panic attack could get misconstrued as becoming violent, or, as has been the case with me, I find it difficult to fully trust law enforcement, considering all the scandalous material I hear and read about over the news. These are the people you are supposed to trust, but one never knows for sure if the individual person behind the badge actually believes in what it represents, or if they abuse that symbol to their own ends.

I’d like to think that most police officers join the force for the same reason I wanted to in the first place. To protect the innocent, serve the public trust, and to uphold the law, as that great metallic model police officer did say. As such, I’d like to suggest to all law enforcement officials that they be aware that being afraid does not always equal violence, or a drug addiction. Some people are born with serious emotional conditions that make just using a toaster confounding, and being approached by a police officer is a thousand ties more harrowing in comparison.

To all departments of public safety, I would suggest you follow the lead of the Texas Driving with Autism program started by Aspergers101. As Texas has done, there should be a universally acknowledged symbol or code placed on driver’s licenses, so that law enforcement officials can instantly know that the person behind the wheel is Autistic, handicapped, and not likely to respond well to insult or aggression. This alerts the officer that the driver may need a moment to achieve a sense of calm and to process the situation around them. But most importantly, it is important to realize that this is an emotional condition that impacts all facets of life. Autism certainly should not be lumped in with such conditions as violent behavior, or an impairment such as driving while intoxicated. In the end, adults diagnosed with Autism can very well turn out to be some of the safest drivers on the road today.

by Christopher Aaron Seltzer


Learn more about AS101’s “Driving with Autism” here!

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“Driving with Autism” is an AspDriving with Autism logoergers101 series that educates and empowers the driver diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Aspergers101 has teamed up with the Texas DPS in training Texas State Troopers about the uniqueness of Autism and understanding the Autistic driver. This partnership is garnering encouraging results.

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One thought on “Behind the Wheel with Autism: A Personal Perspective

  1. This is a wonderful and well written article. I have often thought about this situation and worry about my children driving. I think that is a perfect idea to have a universally acknowledged symbol or code placed on driver’s licenses or perhaps in the car itself.