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Autistics take the wheel: learning to drive as an autistic teen

Updated: Mar 14

I was always surprised by the Disney channel shows that would show the teenage protagonist just over the moon excited to get their driver’s license. My experience was a lot closer to the character of Ian from Disney Pixar’s “Onward” who felt really nervous about the prospect of driving (or Haley's experience, as evident by the Modern Family GIF below).

Turns out, there’s a lot of autistics like me who feel anywhere from hesitant to downright terrified to drive. I feel like this concern comes from a valid place, as driving can be a challenging task.

There’s so much to go over about driving, I couldn’t possibly describe every autistic’s experience. In the event that someone else may find this helpful, I wanted to reflect back on my experience learning how to drive.

Your Feelings are Valid

The first thing I want to say is that if you or someone you know is autistic and has a fear of driving, this is a valid concern. There is a lot to consider- from sensory experiences to making quick decisions. There are some autistic adults out there who may not be able to learn how to drive, and this does not make them any less of an adult.

Go at your own MPH

For those who are planning to drive, I found that breaking down each step was incredibly helpful for me. I started in an empty parking lot with the car going zero miles an hour. Yes, zero. I was going so slow the odometer wasn’t moving.

The next step was driving on streets with a speed limit of 25 mph. Then, I worked up to 45 mph. It took me a whole year before I ever tried driving on a freeway. Even on the freeway, I would stay to the right side (I’m in the US) where if I needed to get off right away, I could get off.

Even if you can accomplish one of these goals, that is huge progress. You do not need to rush into the carpool lane right away. Drive in settings where you feel comfortable. This can be a huge confidence booster as a newer driver. Please take all the time you need to build that confidence.

 Your Sensory Experiences are Right On Track

It can take a while to figure out your sensory preferences that help you feel comfortable when driving, and these may even evolve overtime. When I started driving, I wore these huge prescription sunglasses to block out as much sun as possible, What I learned was that these glasses felt too heavy on my face and were cumbersome to my focus. I was able to buy a pair of smaller frames, which feel much more comfortable.

Figuring out what temperature you need in the car can be tricky. My A/C gets turned on and off a few times to keep me at a temperature where I feel regulated. I never turn up the A/C to the highest setting because then it is too loud, and I have trouble concentrating. I also do not turn on the A/C right away when pulling out of my parking spot. I don’t know why, but it's too distracting until I’m on the road!

It is okay to have idiosyncrasies when it comes to regulating your sensory needs while driving. Whatever you need to do to help you focus is valid (but please don’t blast your music).

Consider a Driving Instructor

When learning to drive, I did find a driving instructor to be of some benefit to me. It was nice to be in the car with someone who does this all the time, and someone who is not related to you. Sometimes, parents can be a bit nervous or impatient due to the stress of the situation. However, there are some driving instructors that are patient and calm. If you are comfortable, you can ask an agency that provides driving instructors (sometimes insurance companies) ahead of time if there is an instructor who has experience working with new drivers with disabilities.

The agency set me up with someone who was so patient, I thought he was a saint. He worked with me on what I was doing at the time, which was exclusively side streets. While there were times when I found him to be repetitive (I have a pretty good memory), I could see how another person may prefer to hear the same information more than once. Other than that caveat, I highly recommend him.

Start Your Engines

Yes, driving can be a lot. But regardless of whether you’re going 0 or 65 mph, I hope that you are proud of yourself when you find the courage to work on this skill. Each new step for me felt pretty nerve-wreaking. It took a lot of time and effort, but for me, it was worth it. I have been driving for over 10 years now and I am glad this is a skill I can utilize to (usually) make my life easier.

If you are autistic and want to talk through your concerns about driving, our life coaches can help you consider what steps you want to take in a time frame that is comfortable for you. If you are a parent and you’re having trouble understanding how to help your loved one, our life coaches are adept at understanding and communicating the autistic experience. They would be happy to help provide insights into what worries your loved one about driving.

The characters of Sam and Dean Winchester from "Supernatural" in their beloved 1967 Chevy Impala.

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