“I know that saying that learning I’m neurodivergent helped my driving is a bit of an odd claim,” said Saira K. Zuberi, “but it is true in that it made me examine the issues that I have as a driver/decision-maker, and in the way I move, how my body and brain connect, or how I communicate non-verbally.”
Getting a licence is a rite of passage for many, but for neurodiverse people the experience of driving comes with unique, heightened challenges. Information overload, ADHD and anxiety can make driving more difficult.
“You experience the world very differently because all your senses are very heightened,” said Anita Lesko, 62.
Lesko is a registered nurse anesthetist who was diagnosed at age 50 with Asperger’s. She has since written extensively about driving with autism, contributing pieces for organizations such as the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
“I call it living in Dolby Surround Sound, because all your senses are greatly intensified. So, things that other people would not be bothered by, like loud music, touch sensations, problems identifying facial expressions and body language and spatial orientation, tend to be greatly affect autistic people.”
Anne Woods, diagnosed as autistic at age 40, finds getting behind the wheel therapeutic.
“Driving for me is a brilliant way to center and focus and forget everything else,” she said. “It’s a good combination of physical and mental activities that require me to use both hemispheres of my brain.”
Zuberi, 47, who was diagnosed as neurodivergent in the spring, said, “It took me years to teach my nervous system that missing a turn is not cause for panic or a tantrum, because you literally just take the next turn.
“Now I understand I’m not an idiot. It’s actually just an issue with how my brain works. Having GPS is extremely helpful!”
Winnipegger Adam Schwartz started driving at age 18.
“I got my driver’s licence late because I was afraid of driving,” he said. “It got to the point where it was awkward being the only one of my friends who didn’t have a licence. It was awkward always asking people for a ride.”
He’s now been driving for 18 years and said his fear of getting lost or missing his destination still “terrifies” him, but has been partially solved by technology.
“I feel nervous about going to a new place. Even when I have GPS I worry about missing the location. It is scary, especially highway driving, because I end up focusing so much on finding the place but GPS is a lot easier to use than a map.”
Sensory overload is another issue. Sometimes described as a “traffic jam in your head,” it happens when the senses become overwhelmed by any number of triggers, including noise, bright lights and movement.
“I am a good driver,” said Sarah Richardson. “I am a confident driver. My main issue is sensory with the noise my kids generate in the back seat. It is worse due to being in a confined space with them. Aside from driving a convertible I’m not sure what else could be done!”
Veronica Rodriguez said her 16-year-old autistic son is an excellent driver.
“He takes the rules of the road very seriously. He is meticulous with car care. He says his only concern while driving is getting distracted by others in the car, so now he does not allow passengers in his car. I am sure he would appreciate car makers making him an eject button when a passenger gets too chatty or perhaps a silence sign that he can light up with the push of a button.”
Kirk Carson, 35, an autistic person who has been driving commercial trucks since 2006, said he has always been obsessed with cars. He applied for his licence the days after he turned 16 because his father marked down the wrong day on the calendar. Waiting that extra day, he said, was “excruciating. I never let him forget it.”
Like Zuberi, Carson said autism has helped him in the job.
“I’ve always been very good at route planning and time management,” he said. “It’s not really a hyperfocus, but I feel that being able to remember routes and shipper locations is just a lot easier for me than some of my some of the coworkers I’ve had in the past.”
These days Carson has a wife and family and mainly drives locally near his Virginia Beach, Va. Home. However, he also spent years doing long distance drives. One thing connects them, a feeling of independence.
“The independence is definitely a big factor. There’s not a whole lot of face-to-face interaction with people, which can be uncomfortable. You know, figuring out how to load a truck is like a puzzle and there’s a lot of spatial awareness involved so I can just kind of rely on myself to get things done.”
Lesko, who taught her autistic husband to drive, said the key to learning to drive as an autistic person is to take “one little small step at a time. Over and over again.”
“Parents have to understand not to expect autistic kids to learn driving like a neurotypical child,” she said, “because they are pretty much not going to. Once they do start driving, they’ll be fine but in order to get from point A to point B, it has to be much slower.
“Go to a big shopping center parking lot on an early Sunday morning before they open, so there’s nobody there, and drive around so they feel the car and how to handle the vehicle and feel comfortable sitting there behind the wheel. It’s one step at a time and repetitiously doing the same thing over and over until they’re comfortable with that. The person has to get comfortable with handling the vehicle before they can ever go out on the road and contend with other drivers.”