Guest post by Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, EdD.
Many parents struggle with accepting the fact that their teenagers will soon be on the road and driving a vehicle. Parents of children with autism often struggle with whether their child is ready for such responsibility in life. If you are a parent or caregiver of someone on the spectrum, here are ten things to consider when making such a decision.
1. Functional Reasoning
Why are you considering introducing your child with autism to driving? Is it simply a rite of passage that has been offered to all the children in your family? Has your child asked you about obtaining a driver’s license? Does your child have a job that requires them to travel back and forth to work each day? Does your child have the motivation to follow through with the written test requirements and the practice driving time requirements? If your own child is not asking about driving, then there may be no point in addressing this situation.
2. Driving Schools and Programs
Sometimes, it is difficult for a parent to accept that they may not be the best person to instruct their child in the rules of driving. Check out local driving schools in your community. Many of them have worked with individuals with autism in the past and may be comfortable instructing your child. Many high schools offer “Driver’s Education” classes during the summer. These classes may become an excellent resource for your child on the spectrum.
3. Reasonable Accommodations
Does your child have the skill set to self-advocate? Are they able to explain that they are autistic and identify the accommodations they may need as they learn to drive? They may have to explain a need for “frequent” breaks to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Their sensory needs may require that no one plays music in the vehicle while they are learning to drive. Your child may also need to explain that they don’t always understand “sarcasm” and that clear instructions will benefit them the most.
4. Consulting the Professionals/Parents
It is always wise to seek the advice of other professionals. This could include your child’s doctor, special education teacher, occupational therapist, behavior specialist, or speech-language pathologist. They may be able to provide you with valuable insight into the readiness or skill level of your child for driving. Consulting with other parents of children with autism would also offer you fantastic insight. They can share with you the reasoning behind their decision to have or not have their child obtain a driver’s license.
5. Answering Questions from Others
Be prepared as a parent with the questions others may ask you. There are still many people in the community who believe all individuals with a disability are incapable of learning how to drive. They may be “shocked” to learn your child is learning how to drive. Their questions to you may appear insensitive. This is a great time to “educate” them. You can show them studies or explain to them that many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) become successful drivers. Some of these studies have shown that teenage drivers with high functioning autism were less likely to get into car accidents than non-autistic teens.
6. Dealing with Errors – Not for Everyone
Many new drivers make errors. You should not expect “perfection” from your child. You’ll need to be patient as they develop their new driving skills. Your child may also discover that they no longer wish to drive as they enter into this process. You’ll need to support your child either way. Just because your child changes their mind about driving, doesn’t mean that they’ll never drive. They may decide that they want to attempt to learn to drive at a later time. If your child is feeling “rushed” they may want to slow the process down.
7. Fine and Gross Motor Skills
Both fine and gross motor skills are essential for safe driving. As a parent, you should consult with an occupational therapist to ensure that your child has these necessary skills. These skills will need to be assessed to determine if your child can handle utilizing a brake, gas pedal, steering wheel, blinkers, etc. in a timely manner while driving.
8. Sustained Attention
If your child is struggling with staying focused for long periods of time, driving may not be their best option. As a parent, you should be able to identify how your own child is able to handle this skill. While some individuals with autism struggle with maintaining their focus, others excel in this area.
Multitasking is an important component for successful driving. A driver must be able to make quick decisions. It also means dealing with the “unexpected,” such as emergency situations, weather conditions, defensive driving techniques, spilling a drink while driving, or hazardous driving techniques by other drivers. It will be important for you to discuss these types of situations with your child so they develop a successful skillset on how to deal with them effectively.
10. Practice, Practice, Practice
Try to find a safe location for your child to practice their driving skills. Many abandoned shopping malls have excellent parking lots that can be used for practice. They also have posted signage that can assist your child. If that is not an option for you, it might be best to practice with your child in your own neighborhood. Developing designated routes will also allow your child the necessary chance to practice their skills. Conquering familiar routes may be necessary before your child develops their skills toward unfamiliar routes.
Given the right support and assistance, your child on the autism spectrum may be able to become a successful and independent driver in their own community.
Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, EdD is an Assistant Director of Special Education for a public school district and an Associate Faculty Member with the University of Phoenix and a Special Graduate Faculty member at the University of Kansas. He has Bachelor level Degrees in English and Special Education. He holds Master level Degrees in Counseling, Special Education and School Administration. His Doctorate Degree is from Northern Arizona University in Educational Leadership. His Post Graduate Degrees are in Positive Behavior Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders. He has worked for the past 37 years with students between the ages of 3-21 with Autism and various medical needs in various school and community-based settings.
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