Very Few Pediatric Providers Discuss Whether Their Patients with Autism Should Drive, Study Shows

Because autism is such a wide spectrum, it encompasses both people who love to drive and are great at it and those who will never be able to drive a car because of the way their symptoms manifest. And, of course, there is also a large number of individuals somewhere in the middle of that spectrum who may be able to become safe and able drivers with some extra assistance.

To keep everyone on the road as safe as possible, it’s important that those teenagers and young adults who don’t have the skills necessary to be safe drivers stay off the road. But it’s also important to allow those young adults who do have the necessary skills to take driving classes and get their licenses so that they can have the freedom and independence they crave. So who will make that call?

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Ideally, the trained professionals who provide certain healthcare and behavioral care services to these young people may be the best choice. But a recent study shows that these individuals are not equipped to make the call and usually don’t discuss driving with their patients.

The study, which comes to us from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) and the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. It was part of a wider body of research that hopes to improve our understanding of the transportation needs of adolescents on the autism spectrum. Other studies have looked into individualized training, parental support, and driving patterns as they contribute to autistic individuals’ ability to drive safely.

Being able to get to where they want to go greatly improves psychosocial, health, and employment outcomes for people on the spectrum. But the researchers found that only eight percent of pediatric healthcare and behavioral service providers feel prepared to make an assessment as to whether or not their teenage patients with autism are ready to drive.

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A total of 78 providers who care for both autistic and non-autistic patients were surveyed. Most of them were attending pediatric physicians and psychologists located in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Half of them reported having general transportation-related discussions with non-autistic patients, but only about 20 percent had discussed transportation with patients on the autism spectrum.

Furthermore, 33 percent of providers reported that they believed they could assess whether their non-autistic patients were ready to drive, but only eight percent said they could assess their autistic patients’ driving readiness.

“It was also surprising to learn that only 1 in 4 providers refer their patients, autistic or not, to other providers for driving-related issues,” says Emma Sartin, Ph.D., MPH, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at CIRP. “Our next steps will be to start developing resources and tools so that families, and the professionals who support them, are not left largely on their own to make or guide important decisions about driving.”

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Based on their study, the researchers believe there is a critical need to develop new resources to prepare healthcare providers and other people who work with youth on the autism spectrum to assess the skills needed for safe driving and facilitate independence and mobility in their clients.

Currently, about two-thirds of 15- to 18-year-olds of individuals with autism but no intellectual disability are driving or planning to drive. One-third of those with autism and an intellectual disability will get licensed by age 21. Luckily, newly licensed drivers with autism have a similar or even lower crash rate than their peers without autism, suggesting that those who are capable of getting licensed are safe drivers. They are also less likely than their peers to have their licenses suspended or receive a traffic violation.

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Healthcare providers could play a critical role in helping families decide whether and when their children should get driver’s licenses. They could help ensure the safety of our roads and also help ensure that those youths who have the skills needed to drive are able to have freedom and mobility.

“One important way that providers can help autistic teens and their families is to start talking about driving and transportation before they get to high school,” says Benjamin E. Yerys, Ph.D. , study author and a clinical psychologist at CAR. “We know this seems early, but it provides more time for them to benefit from supports, including those services that come from outside of healthcare, including tailored instruction from a driving rehabilitation specialist.”

Families looking to help their autistic teens transition to the world of driving can find resources at the Center for Autism Research at CHOP and

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