Have you watched “Young Sheldon”? Prequel of “The Big Bang Theory”, 9 year old Sheldon is gifted and demonstrates traits of autism (although it is never formally mentioned); Sheldon’s mentor and physics professor Dr John Sturgis (also gifted and demonstrating traits of autism) doesn’t drive. He attempts a driving lesson with Connie (Sheldon’s beloved grandma):  

John approaches an intersection with a yellow traffic light… it goes something like this:

          John: (panicking) Yellow light! Yellow light!

          Connie: it was just a yellow light!

          John is upset and pulls over.

          John: It’s too much information, I can’t process it.

          Connie: it was just a yellow light!

          John: It was not just the light… there were other cars, pedestrians, there was a guy on a bicycle… it’s just too many random elements.. the stimuli are overwhelming..

Dr Sturgis demonstrates the challenges often experienced and found in the research in drivers and learner drivers with autism. Dr Sturgis doesn’t know what to prioritise and may not know exactly what he needs to look for, and may take more time to process this information… not to mention extreme anxiety in the situation.

Parents of young adults with autism (and other conditions including ADHD) are usually concerned about their teen’s ability and safety in being able to drive and being on the road, but they also want their teen to have the normality of learning to drive like other kids.

Driving Well Occupational Therapy has been leading change in this space across Australia, with the roll-out of the “potential to drive” approach and resources including the Drive Focus app from the Driver Rehab Institute in the USA and development of the Get Driving online therapy toolkit.

Here are our tips that parents need to know:

1. Autism may require medical clearance for driving from your doctor

Autism now appears on the AustRoads Assessing Fitness to Drive guidelines as a medical condition / disability under “Neurological conditions” (these changes were published in June 2022) https://austroads.com.au/publications/assessing-fitness-to-drive/ap-g56/neurological-conditions/other-neurological-and-neurodevelopmental-conditions#other-neurological-conditions-table

So what?

Autism and other conditions can impact a person’s motor coordination, visual search and processing skills, and may impact safe driving performance. Like any person with a medical condition, they must have clearance from their doctor. The doctor may decide they need an OT driving assessment, and may decide:

  • No medical certificate / condition is needed; or
  • A medical certificate with a medical condition endorsement but no restriction; or
  • A restricted medical certificate – driving with a driving instructor only / dual control car” may be required to maintain the young adult’s (and everyone elses) safety… we just don’t know if they are going to be able to respond to a hazardous situation under pressure.

2. Common challenges of autism on driving

Research has been completed showing autism characteristics that may impact driving include:

  • reduced coordination of limbs for physical control, and visual motor integration – seeing a bend and steering around it
  • tricky with interpreting non-verbal cues eg brake and indicator lights, tailgaters
  • understanding traffic flow
  • trouble with problem solving; planning ahead; mental flexibility; divided attention
  • “look but do not see”
  • take longer to find “critical” information
  • experience cognitive overload and anxiety

Your teen may have difficulty with some or all of these, and if these are not addressed, they may not be successful with learning to drive or be dangerous on the road.

It is also important to remember that not everyone with autism will show potential to drive now, or will be successful with obtaining their driver’s licence.

3. Steps to use NDIS funding for driving lessons

Funding for specialised driving lessons through the NDIS is a “stated item” – this means that it cannot be utilised until an OT driving assessment is completed and a report and quote for lessons is submitted to the NDIA for consideration. The recommendations and quote need to be approved and added to the NDIS plan, under CB: improved daily living.

You and your teen will need some resolve.. this can be a lengthy process… but we are lucky to have access to this funding support.

4. Parent input is crucial!

Sorry parents, learning to drive cannot be handballed over to the driving instructor. Research shows that it may take up to 3 times longer for these young people to be successful in learning to drive, and they will still need to work up minimum supervised driving hours (as per your state licencing authority) to attempt a Provisional licence test. NDIS will not fund endless hours for learning to drive.

Parents are busy and overloaded – you need to work out if the timing for working on learning to drive is right for your teen and for you. Teen also needs to “drive” this learning to drive – they need to be motivated to do the lessons and the homework!

5. You can do so much whilst you wait!

Your teen may be restricted to driving with a driving instructor only initially… the good news is that they can practice all the subskills needed for driving:

  • Work on community mobility: pedestrian, passenger, ride share, public transport… then tackle driving
  • Work on independence with general lifeskills
  • The award winning Drive Focus app is designed to develop visual search and speed of processing (reaction) skills. Watch a 1 minute video below (it’s an American app but has drives in Brisbane and Melbourne). Get it on your tablet device (ipad or android) or on Windows 11. www.drivefocus.com
  • The Get Driving online therapy toolkit includes activity sheets and video examples of graded home and front passenger activities.

Get the Toolkit here: https://drivingwell.thinkific.com/courses/getdriving

Driving Autism

Find out if your teen is ready to learn to drive!

There is so much more to share… Jenny has developed a 1.5 hour pre-recorded webinar to guide you through the research in more detail, use a lifeskills review and walk you through what is involved in an OT “potential to drive” assessment.

Get the webinar here: https://drivingwell.thinkific.com/courses/is-my-young-adult-ready-for-driving

Use your NDIS funding

To purchase the webinar and toolkit through your young persons’ NDIS plan, send an email to admin@drivingwell.com.au, with your request, NDIS participant number and plan manager details.

Driving Well Occupational Therapy provides OT potential to drive assessment and driving therapy for learners and pre-learners in the Brisbane area and we love working with this group of young Australians on working toward their goal of becoming a driver.

Jenny Gribbin, Director / OT Driver Assessor, Driving Well Occupational Therapy


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