Can a person with a diagnosis of autism drive?

A medical diagnosis of autism does not mean that a person cannot drive. However, in Australia, an individual with a medical condition that may impact on their ability to drive is required to declare the condition to the relevant authority. In NSW, this is usually declared when the person attempts to obtain their learner licence. The person’s treating doctor, other health professional or family members concerned about the person’s ability to drive may also refer them for an OT driving assessment. This article will outline the process involved for a person with autism to gain their licence.

How can autism affect driving ability?

Autism is a disorder that generally alters how a person processes information from their surroundings. Drivers with autism can regularly have difficulties with perception, spatial awareness, decision-making, following direction, reaction time and sensory modulation problems. While the effects of the condition can vary greatly between individuals, the condition is also commonly correlated with intellectual disabilities or learning difficulties.

What is involved in an OT driving assessment?

Once the person has obtained their learner licence, they can undergo the OT driving assessment. The assessment is split into two parts – the off-road assessment and on-road assessment. Clients with autism frequently require several lessons to become proficient in driving and obtain their provisional licence.

The off-road assessment focuses on analysing the three essential components every driver needs: vision, cognition and physical ability. Any significant deficits in these areas may hinder the person’s driving capacity.

The on-road assessment involves the person driving with the OT and driving instructor. The driving instructor is specially qualified to work with people with medical diagnoses. The client drives for 1 hour, where their capability to drive is assessed in relation to their medical condition. For a person with autism that is only learning to drive, the assessment usually takes the form of a lesson where the fundamentals of driving are taught. Novice drivers with autism usually require ongoing lessons with the rehabilitation driving instructor to build their driving skills, and the OT will develop a lesson plan with specific goals and recommend a specific number of lessons. As long as the person shows continual signs of improvement in their driving ability, lessons will continue until the person is considered ready to take their provisional driving test. However, if the person is observed to stagnate with their driving and does not show ongoing improvement, it may be deemed that ongoing sessions will not be beneficial, and this will be discussed with the client and their family.

What is the OT driving assessment looking at? Why is it necessary?

The OT driving assessment is the only systematic process by which a person with a significant and permanent medical condition like autism can be observed during the act of driving. Although a doctor may be concerned about a person’s driving competence, they cannot observe the person driving and thus cannot make the determination if the diagnosis affects their driving. Thus, the role of the OT driving assessment is to comprehensively evaluate how the disorder is affecting their driving ability, if it affects it at all. The assessment and ongoing driving lessons aim to develop the person’s driving skills and help them to reach their driving potential. Minor, non-critical errors that are considered due to the person’s limited driving experience, poor habits or unfamiliarity with the vehicle, are often overlooked. However, critical errors (where the driving instructor is required to physically intervene to prevent a collision) are analysed and worked on. If the person shows the aptitude to take on feedback and improve their driving, lessons will continue.