Driving is something that most people generally take for granted. Getting to the store, to work, or to a friend’s place usually requires driving, at least in much of the United States. Public transport is often lacking compared to places like Europe and Asia, and while walking or biking is a healthy alternative, it may takes too long or the infrastructure is not present, which leaves going by car as the only option.
For the neurodiverse, driving is not always an option. For various reasons, they may be unable to get their license or simply not want to drive. They may sit the written test and pass with flying colors, yet never make it past the practical road test.
These reasons may include sensory issues, anxiety, or just difficulties handling the task of driving. One such challenge is the act of “driving by the book” and the act of “driving like a neurotypical”, both of which are quite different. We have traffic laws to prevent people from getting into accidents, but for the often highly logical neurodiverse brain, they may interpret the law differently compared to neurotypicals. Take for example a sign on the highway: “Speed limit 60”. A neurodiverse person is more likely to interpret that as “Do not go faster than 60”, but what does everyone do? Certainly not less than 60. Maybe in the slow lane, but most people will be probably doing at least 65 and some even 70. That “No turn on red” sign (in the United States it is legal to turn right at a red light if safe to do so in most jurisdictions). I’ve even seen police officers make a right turn on red in the presence of such a sign. They often don’t even stop like it says to do in the driver’s handbook, yet if a neurodiverse driver were to drive like this, they will most likely end up getting pulled over because they didn’t realize there was a officer in the other lane.
This same neurodiverse driver is also likely to have a mental breakdown because while they are driving at the speed limit, the neurotypical driver behind them is catching up and leaning on the horn, which in itself is triggering. No wonder so many people on the spectrum do not drive.
Driving is already mentally demanding as it is – it requires focus and concentration (which does mean putting away the cell phone) and may require split-second decision-making. When the light turns amber, do you slow down and risk getting rear-ended or not stopping in time, or do you floor it and risk entering the intersection when the light turns red? What about when a ambulance comes screaming up behind you and you need to make a quick lane change to allow it to pass?
When I learned to drive, something that was particularly stressful to me was when receiving conflicting information, such as a traffic light and an officer in the intersection directing traffic, or when the person instructing me would tell me to perform an unfamiliar maneuver in the middle of an intersection that was not taught in the book. Cue mental meltdown behind the wheel.
There’s also the social aspect of driving – this means understanding that other motorists are doing and predicting what they are doing next. People don’t always use their turn signals , and then there’s the special case of (at least in the United States), the four-way stop-sign. Other drivers may also have issues of their own – road rage and impatient drivers can make things more stressful to a neurodiverse person behind the wheel.
Many neurodiverse individuals can – and do – drive. In fact many even drive for a living in the form of jobs like food delivery and ride-sharing. They are often safer than neurotypical drivers for the reasons mentioned above – they are less likely to speed and drive recklessly, and more likely to focus on the road. Sure, they might need to “stim and drive” on occasion, but compared to texting and driving, it’s fairly harmless, especially if it helps to reduce the stress and anxiety that may come with being on the road. It also is helpful (for the neurodiverse and neurotypicals alike) to know one’s limits when driving. I was once driving and nearly changed lanes without noticing someone in my blind spot. The other driver honks, I get stressed out (not just because of getting honked at, but also the thought of nearly having a collision), and immediately look for the nearest highway exit so I can safely pull over and let my friend do the driving for the rest of the trip.
Compared to other transportation options, driving is not cheap – when factoring in costs such as fuel, insurance, loan payments, registration, etc. this can add up to thousands and thousands of dollars a year, and for those on the spectrum – especially those who are not able to obtain a well-paying job, it may make more financial sense to just not drive at all. Some are content with walking or taking the bus to get to where they need to go – and they will likely be able to tell you the difference between a Gillig Phantom and a Rapid Transit Series and why one might be better than the other. If they ride the same route often enough, they will probably know the fleet numbers of all the buses that run that route and the names of all the regular drivers too).
When my first car died, I did just that. Frustrated with the negotiating games the dealership played when trading it in for something new (my highly logical brain struggled with the idea that my old car was somehow worth more if I wanted to buy a more expensive model), I decided to instead donate it to a local charity and go “car-free” for a while, using a bicycle as my primary method of transport. I switched my insurance to a “non-owner” policy, which is cheaper than standard insurance and still provided continuous coverage if I drove someone else’s car. With the money I saved, I was able to put more money towards paying down my mortgage…and more video games.
Driving, by its very nature, is not the most autism-friendly activity out there, but with the right training, along with plenty of practice, many neurodiverse individuals can become excellent drivers. On the other hand, if neurodiverse people ran the world, driving would not be as necessary because we would just have more trains that take us to where we need to go instead.