📆 October 25, 2022 | ⏱️ 6 minute read | 🏷️ autism

Challenges Driving With Autism

Driving with autism is challenging sometimes. I’d like to share some of the difficulties I’ve faced driving as a person with high-functioning autism. Remember that I’m just one person with autism. Autistic brains are more different from each other than neurotypical brains, so the experiences I’m sharing here only reflect my life, not that of every autistic person.

Poor Physical Coordination

To begin with, it’s often thought that all autistic people have poor muscle coordination and can’t multitask. So, we must suck at driving, right? In my case, I have great muscle coordination and it’s not a problem at all for my driving.

Inability to Multitask

As for multitasking, I first need to make a distinction between two fully separable aspects of driving. The first is controlling the car. Can you back up without hitting anything? Can you accelerate and decelerate in a controlled manner? Can you do forward, reverse, parallel, and uphill/downhill parking? Can you stay in your own lane and switch lanes? If you’re driving a manual, can you switch gears smoothly? That sort of thing.

Just as I learned how to ride a bike, I learned to drive a car. It just took practice to build up the muscle memory. Driving a car, for me, feels no more like multitasking than riding a bike. It appears as if I’m doing multiple separate things at once, but it feels like just one activity. I can even drive manuals, shifting gears, using the three pedals, and steering the steering wheel at the same time.

Social Deficits

The second aspect of driving is dealing with other drivers. You might assume this is hard for autistic people since it’s a social activity. But other drivers mainly communicate explicitly. There’s little if any nonverbal social cues in driving.

If someone disapproves of your driving, they honk or give you the bird. If they want to switch lanes, they signal. If someone is coming onto the freeway, they need to merge and it’s courtesy to let them in. If you stop at a four way stop, there’s a rule about who goes first or you can just wave each other past until somebody decides to go.

There’s not much guesswork involved. Most other drivers follow the rules of the road, so I already know exactly what to expect from them. My social deficits don’t negatively impact my driving.

Inability to Adapt

However, what I just said about there being explicit rules everybody follows sort of breaks down under certain circumstances. I’ve found that driving in poorer countries is much more challenging due to the lack of road signs, stoplights, visible lanes, etcetera informing me of what to do. But even neurotypical drivers struggle with this, so I don’t think it’s merely an autism thing.

Sleep Deprivation

So how does autism actually hinder my driving? In two words, sleep deprivation. I’ve mentioned my chronic sleeping problems in my previous entry “Coming Out as Autistic”. Sleep problems are very common in autistic people. I suspect there are a multitude of reasons for that, but that’s beyond the scope of this entry.

No matter who you are, sleep deprivation will worsen your driving. It slows your reaction time, makes you less aware, and puts you at risk of falling asleep at the wheel. As an autistic person, I feel that I am between a rock and a hard place sometimes with sleep.

What do you do when there are important appointments and obligations you need to drive to and show up to, but you’re constantly sleep deprived? I was sleep deprived most days when studying and working in college and university. Many college students are sleep deprived, but it was visibly worse in my case. I really struggled with it.

What am I meant to do? Without access to public transportation, if I don’t drive and show up on time to appointments and things, it has a significant negative impact on my life. On the other hand, if I drive despite being sleep deprived, probably nothing will happen, but maybe one day I won’t be so lucky.

Sensory Issues

The second biggest challenge is sensory issues. Unlike neurotypicals, my brain doesn’t filter out extraneous sensory stimuli. So if passengers in the car turn up the radio too loud and make a lot of racket, part of my attention gets wrapped up in that instead of driving, which is dangerous. To illustrate this, I want to share a personal story.

When I was first learning how to drive, the person I had as an instructor did not respect my autism. I was on a country road with no other cars just learning to control the vehicle when my instructor shouted at me for driving wrong. I parked the car to explain to them that I’m autistic and they couldn’t shout again or else I might go into sensory overload while driving. I was told not to make mistakes if I didn’t want shouted at.

At that point, I realized this person was either a moron or they just hated autistic people and were being intentionally dense. Either way, driving with them was clearly unsafe. So I told them that they would have to drive it back. They refused. So I got out of the car and waited on them to take the driver’s seat. My then instructor, rather than move the car, became irate and started shouting at me saying that I couldn’t leave the car in the street like that. It was a nightmare.

Luckily I found someone else to teach me to drive who who didn’t shout. My driving still wasn’t very good, but it got better with their help and by the end of it I was good enough to drive on my own.

Sometimes there are sensory challenges outside the car like police sirens, firetrucks, the bright sun, and people driving towards me with their brights on. That aggravates my senses, but it’s manageable because I know it’s temporary. I will eventually get away from it. Loud passengers are closer in proximity and I can’t get away from them. That’s the difference.

No Sense of Direction

I’ve written before about my nonexistent sense of direction, but I’m not sure that’s actually a symptom of autism. I’ve met low-functioning autistic people with a great sense of direction and I’m not aware of any link between autism and a bad sense of direction. So it’s probably not relevant here.

Autistic People Can Be Good Drivers

Even though I’m only one autistic person and all of our challenges are unique, there are commonalities. So I hope I’ve shed some light on the autistic driving experience, keeping in mind that I’m not the final word.

I want to wrap up this entry by reminding everyone that autistic people can be good drivers. I am autistic, I’ve been driving for over five years in all sorts of places, and I’ve never even had an accident.

It might take an autistic person a day to master a skill that neurotypicals learn in under an hour, but we can learn. It’s just a matter of having instructors with enough patience to keep trying instead of becoming flustered and blaming us for not meeting their expectations. That’s my two cents, based in personal experience.