Can Autistic People Drive?

In this article, we will closely examine Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), its impact on cognitive abilities, and how it affects an individual's ability to drive. We will understand the heterogeneity of ASD, the misconceptions about driving abilities of autistic individuals, and the support and training they might need to acquire driving skills.
Klara Hatinova

Klara Hatinova

Klara is postgraduate researcher in experimental psychology at the
University of Oxford.

A blue image with text saying "Can Autistic People Drive?"

Can Autistic People Drive?

Yes, individuals with autism can drive. However, the ability to drive depends on the severity of their symptoms. Some may need additional support and training to acquire the necessary skills for driving.

What is Autism?

Autism, formally recognised as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a broad term used to describe a group of neurodevelopmental conditions. These conditions are primarily characterised by differences in communication and social interaction but can also affect executive functions, such as decision-making [1].

The condition affects individuals worldwide, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or economic background [2, 3, 4]. Interestingly, autism is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls. A study of 8-year-olds in 11 locations throughout the United States found a 4.3-to-1 boy-to-girl ratio [2, 3, 4]. The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 1 in every 54 children is autistic, although other estimates are a bit lower than this, closer to 1 in 100 children [2, 3, 4].

The most common signs of ASD include restricted and repetitive interests or patterns of behaviour. However, there is large inter-individual variability in signs or symptoms [5], referred to as a spectrum. 

The heterogeneity of the condition also makes it difficult to establish whether people with autism can drive. Therefore, the purpose of this blog is to look closer into cognitive changes in ASD and specific evidence about whether people with autism feel comfortable driving in general.

Autism and Cognition

Autism can indeed impact cognitive abilities, but the nature and extent of this impact can vary widely among individuals. 

What are cognitive abilities?

Cognitive abilities refer to the mental skills needed for learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem-solving, decision-making, and attention.

Many cognitive abilities depend on social functioning, which may be why ASD individuals are perceived to have cognitive deficiency. Currently, there are no cognitive measures designed specifically for ASD, which means that cognitive function outcomes in ASD may not reflect the true cognitive ability of these individuals.

One study found that older autistic adults performed worse in processing speed and visual working memory than typically developing older adults in terms of memory abilities. However, they performed similarly in all other domains [6]. This study provides insight into how cognitive abilities change with age in autistic individuals compared to the general population, which may also be important in determining whether autistic people drive. 

To sum up, autism does impact cognitive abilities, but the nature of this impact is highly heterogeneous. Cognitive abilities can and do improve with targeted interventions, but the rate of progress is not determined by autism severity.

Can People With Autism Drive?

Yes, people with autism can drive. It's a common misconception that individuals with ASD cannot drive, but this is not founded on any legal considerations. ASD individuals are legally allowed to drive and must abide by state and country rules, just like individuals without ASD [7].

However, learning to drive can present specific challenges for individuals with ASD. Driving requires sustained attention, social skills for anticipating other people's behaviour and learning rules and contingencies. Motor skills may also interfere with the ability to manage the steering wheel.

These were highlighted in a published focus article and review, as collected from family members, autistic individuals and driving instructors [8, 9]. For example, an individual with ASD may find it more difficult to interpret different traffic rules in different settings or be unable to slow down when turning a corner. In addition to these cognitive difficulties, emotional regulation during driving can make driving unpleasant. ASD individuals have reported elevated levels of anxiety, which makes the driving experience less pleasant [8].

On the other hand, some of these difficulties are beneficial. For example, autistic people abide by the rules more often, leading to safe driving, and can, in certain situations, remember routes and traffic information better than average [7]. 

Specialised training courses can help develop driving skills and confidence, especially when instructors are trained in the preferences of ASD individuals. Occupational therapy with a trained occupational therapist can also improve autistic symptoms.

In conclusion, while individuals with ASD may face certain challenges when learning to drive, with the right preparation, individualised training, and support, they can safely and legally drive a vehicle.

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Klara Hatinova

Klara Hatinova

Klara is a postgraduate researcher in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. She has worked across a spectrum of hot topics in neuroscience, including her current project measuring reinforcement learning strategies in Parkinson’s disease. Previously, she studied the efficacy of psilocybin as a therapy for critical mental health conditions and examined molecular circadian rhythms of migraine disorders. She completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow and participated in a year abroad at the University of California, where she worked on a clinical trial for spinal cord injury.