When I started thinking about how I was going to get around on my own in my life, I considered this interesting fact: Not driving inhibits the ability to go from place to place. People who don’t drive miss developmental, educational, and recreational activities outside the home and school. Developmental gaps can result as well as the loss of self-confidence in the long term. Plus, it’s inconvenient when I cannot get where I want to go and arrive when I want to arrive. And being able to do this is what it means to be independent, doesn’t it?
The following seven-step method helped me tackle some of the most pressing issues facing drivers on the autism spectrum.
Step 1: Decide how you are going to get around.
For many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), driving is a major challenge with many risks involving basic decision-making and interpreting nonverbal cues. Every moment behind the wheel can impact the quality of an autistic person’s life and ability to reach a destination.
I began by asking this question: “Am I ready to tackle driving?” The best thing to do is to ask insightful questions like this. There are plenty of other questions to ask as well. Many have to do with life skills that can be learned.
If you decide you are not ready to drive, consider the other possible modes of transportation and experiment with them. Ask yourself if the mode of transportation does its job well. Or does your bus driver have a disrespectful attitude? Is the taxi driver notorious for tardiness and losing his way? If your driver is a friend or family member, does he or she tend to get distracted?
Try a different means of transportation until you find one that is right for you. Use this as your default mode of transportation.
If you have decided to learn how to drive, read on!
Step 2: Overcome your fear.
Did you realize that self-imposed restrictions limit your independence? And refusing to practice a life skill actually fosters anxiety because every time you dwell on what’s unfamiliar, you become more nervous. In turn, you’ll avoid the driving practice necessary to expand your previously learned skills and current knowledge.
To face your fear, try this five-step approach:
Step 1—Acknowledge the fear.
Step 2—Use critical thinking by asking “Why?” five times to get down to the root dilemma.
Step 3—Break the dilemma down into simple parts, and devote time to addressing the possibilities related to each part.
Step 4—Visualize what you want to accomplish, and use it to break the barriers caused by your fear.
Step 5—Make a habit of breaking these barriers—and the fear will disappear.
Step 3: Assess and build your skills.
Know that driving is a privilege that you must earn. Determine all of the skills you need, from tackling a wide variety of driving situations to taking the road test. Then, assess your ability to handle these situations by looking at your skills in challenging activities that do not require driving.
Note your strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge your strong points, and establish the relationships you need to turn your weaknesses into strong points. Plan, implement, evaluate, and modify your strategies for strengthening your skills.
Maintain your skills through consistent and diverse driving sessions.
Step 4: Learn by observing.
Watch driving videos that tackle a driving situation from multiple viewpoints. Be sure to account for the emotional experiences of the driver and what is most likely to occur as a result.
Ride with another driver, and observe as many facets of the driver’s experience as possible. Focus on one facet at a time. Repeat sessions when necessary.
Then, ask a driver to let you drive to test your abilities. Strengthen what were once weak points in your driving through repetition. Gradually look for more of your weak points and address each of them.
Step 5: Know the rules of the road.
Understand the rules that apply to driving, and follow them. Constantly ask yourself “What is the best thing to do in this instance to keep myself and others safe?”
Step 6: Learn the language of the road.
Learn the common nonverbal cues. For example, what does it mean when a driver flashes the vehicle’s lights? Or when someone waves at you, are you being given the right of way? If you understand what these cues may mean, you will know how to respond responsibly.
Step 7: Celebrate the milestones.
The act of driving means independence to me: I go to the gym by myself, visit friends on game night, work to earn that sweet paycheck every month, and drive to the beach for a day of relaxation.
When you get your driver’s license, acknowledge that you made a life-changing decision and that this deserves celebrating.
Sun contributor Reese Eskridge drives himself to and from work as a food science technician at United Cocoa Processor in Newark, Del., five days a week.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the autumn 2018 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.