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Teaching Driving to Someone with Autism

This summer, fall, and winter I had the privilege of teaching a young adult with autism - to drive. I had never realized how much we take for granted when we drive but I can now identify some skills we just naturally have, and some that people with autism may not. And those skills can make learning to drive pretty easy or horribly hard.

I attended the LBCC Driver Education class with my son as an "aide." The instructor was really helpful as she had a son with aspergers herself. The colleges often teach driver ed nowadays as schools often can't afford to run the classes here in Oregon. It consisted of 3 hour classes twice a week for four and a half weeks. During the 6 weeks the students also participate in four 3 hour sessions in a car where there are 2 students that switch off halfway through. So total driving is 6 hours.

With autism, this is likely not even close to enough time.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) dictates to the colleges what curriculum is used and the pace at which it teaches. This is so that a student can make up a class in a different location. This would work well if they didn't chose curriculum no longer offered for sale - and there is a reason.

It is a pity that ODOT didn't trot down the road to the University of Oregon and ask - hey, what curriculum would you use? Because the curriculum folks there would have informed them that the curriculum available is complex, incomplete, or unavailable without a huge price tag. You see, BEFORE a student even starts to drive, they could go through computer generated scenarios and learning modules. Except they can't - unless they are becoming police officers or fly to Texas for driving school. So if you have a disability and live in Oregon, welcome to the barren desert of driver education. I would think that ODOT and the colleges would realize that computer simulation helps save wear and tear on the cars and avoid potential accidents. In addition it gives all the extra practice for the folks who need it. Two accidents occurred during my son's driver education term and I believe one car may have been totaled. But who needs computer simulation.

So I sat in class, explaining the poorly worded test scenarios that could technically be construed multiple ways to my son. I thought, wow, what a waste of time and money. ODOT could have done much better. But then hey, they are the ones that want a city sized bridge between Portland and Vancouver and have a new highway to the coast that is STILL not open. Yeah, those people.

I painfully went through their booklets (one for the student and one for the parent) that had blurry pictures and some outdated information which included how long to wait to cross an intersection when a pedestrian is crossing in front of you. Our course cost about $435, and that was because the student was 18 or over. Under 18 and it cost about $265. I used their complex terminology for lane position 1-5 (1 is in the middle, evens on the left, odds on the right - just do a google image search). I repeated their targeting method of maintaining your lane as you turn and the reference points in your car in relation to the curb so you can angle park or parallel park. It was all fine and dandy except when I had to teach these points to dad in order to have consistent vocabulary across teaching.

We ended up using simpler language: veer left or right to avoid obstacles, look where you are going when turning, and use your mirror to park. We practiced over and over and over and over - well you get the picture. I would work on 2 or so skills per session at the beginning. We might practice each skill 5 to 10 times in a row. If my son wasn't highly motivated, there is no way he would have learned to drive (more on why he was motivated later).

There were some good parts to his driver ed course: acronyms. These were super helpful:

M-SMOG: Mirror -> Signal -> Mirror -> Over the shoulder -> Go! (to change lanes)

SMILE: Seat (adjust) -> Mirror (adjust) -> Ignition -> Lights (on) -> E-brake (take off)

PEK-L: Park (put in) -> E-brake (set) -> Key (remove, put in pocket) -> Lock

The thing of it is, we take little skills for granted thinking the learner already knows very, very basic things. Take, for instance, the realization after about 2 hours of driving with his father that my son did not know that brake lights in front of him means "I need to probably brake immediately myself." He didn't. We were surprised - and embarrassed that we didn't teach that. Or when telling him to look over his left shoulder it meant turning your head to the left and leaning a little forward - not shifting your whole body to the right and looking around the back of his head rest. You would think that a budding driver had noticed for the past 19 years how "over the shoulder" looked.

I have to admit, the first few weeks I had serious doubts if I could teach my son to drive. He had time delays in making decisions of when and how to look, pull out, change lanes, turn from a multi-lane road to another multi-lane road, and all sorts of little things. It was hard. Harder on me than him. But he persisted through learning how to use a windshield wiper to remembering how to shut off a car and take the fob key with him. The hundreds of little rules we use to keep ourselves and possessions safe. Remembering to keep 4 seconds in front of you and predicting, from the situation, when other cars are going to cut you off or not see you and pull across your lane. He even had to deal with motorcycles spilling in front of him and emergency vehicles in 4 lane roads where he was in the left lane and couldn't easily pull over due to traffic in the right lane.

So after about 100 hours of driving, thinking out loud, asking him millions of questions about what he will do and how, my son took his driver education test and failed. Darn that emergency vehicle. Probably was heading to that motorcycle accident he encountered earlier during his test. Fortunately, we were given a second chance and he passed.

At that point I thought maybe he could pass a DMV test. Going through the list of available cities and dates, I realized he would not be able to take the test in the city he practiced in. Going in and out of the DMV and driving around the areas that I guessed might be part of a DMV test was about to become "all for naught." We set a date in a town 20 miles away where he never practiced and had only driven through as a passenger a few times. So we practiced in the small town 6 or 7 times. In and out of the DMV parking lot, driving around the areas that I guessed might be part of a DMV test once again. It is a little surprising the poor placement of DMV buildings and parking lots. We practiced driving into the DMV lot with care as the approach was both narrow and steep.

Being a bit superstitious, I had my son's father take him to the test. I anxiously waited for the phone call only to learn that he would need to retake the test. Unbeknownst to me, a facebook posting already congratulated my son with a picture of him, the car, and his new license. Thanks guys.

Can he drive alone in a car? Only for short well known drives. Will he drive in large or unknown cities? No way, not for a while. But it is possible to teach a person with autism to drive and get their license. However, you will need your own curriculum because what is out there isn't going to get the job done. That's why I will eventually put out a comprehensive driving curriculum on AutismToolbox.org - it can be done but you'll need tons of hours, patience, and a super motivated driver. Because, after all, you can pick up chicks with your car as you are driving down the road :)