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 the cognitive aspects of driving including perception, spatial awareness, decision-making, following direction, reaction time and sensory modulation problems. They can also have deficits with regulating their emotions and/or behaviours, reduced concentration and decreased divided attention skills. As people with autism may also have accompanying learning difficulties or intellectual disabilities, any cognitive issues may be further exacerbated. Research indicates that people with autism usually take longer than people without the condition to successfully achieve their licence. They are also less likely to obtain their licence than the general population. For example, teenagers with autism learning to drive commonly need more practice and lessons than peers of the same age to pass the P’s test. However, it is important to note that people with autism often earn their licence, so an autism diagnosis does not consequently mean that the person cannot drive.
As is the case for any person who is learning to drive, the initial step is to procure their learner’s driver’s licence. Some people with autism may require additional help to learn the road rules and study for the driver knowledge test. When the aspiring driver attempts to achieve their learner licence, they would ideally declare their autism diagnosis to the RMS. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis and how it affects their general functioning, it may also be worthwhile to discuss their goal of driving with a trusted doctor. The RMS may request some supplementary information regarding the person’s medical history, or ask the doctor to complete the RMS medical fitness to drive form.
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, and will be explored further in the practical driving test.
The on-road assessment involves the person driving with the OT and a 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. This will be discussed with the client and their family, and may result in a cancellation of the person’s licence.