Autistic Drivers Encounter Greater Challenges Behind The Wheel
June 27, 2014

Autistic Drivers Encounter Greater Challenges Behind The Wheel

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders from Drexel University has found that individuals with autism self-report more challenges than non-autistic drivers.

The study team described their results as an initial step in determining if adults with autism have unmet needs when it comes to driving a vehicle.

“Previous research in my lab has included extensive research in driving capacity with people who have a variety of conditions such as multiple sclerosis or who had experienced traumatic brain injury,” said study co-author Maria Schultheis, an associate professor of psychology at Drexel. “When we investigate whether and under what circumstances a condition or neurological difference might affect driving ability, as a standard starting point we want to go to individuals and find out from their perspective what problems they are having on the road, in their real-world experience.”

The researchers noted that previous studies on drivers with autism focused on adolescents and relied on parent surveys and evaluations – as opposed to the self-reporting methods they used. The study team said they used a validated survey for driving studies to interview licensed drivers with autism about their experiences.

“We were beginning to see discussion in the research literature that aspects of autism spectrum disorders, such as neurocognitive challenges and social recognition difficulties, could make it likely that members of this population would experience significant challenges with driving,” said study author Brian Daly, an assistant professor of psychology in Drexel. “But that assumption hadn’t been studied in adult drivers, or based on the experiences of the drivers themselves – so these were the questions we explored.”

The survey, which included 78 respondents with autism and 94 non-autistic respondents, found adults with autism spectrum disorders reported getting their drivers’ licenses later in life, driving less often and adding more constraints on their own driving – including keeping away from roadways or driving at night. The respondents with autism also admitted to having more traffic violations than non-autistic drivers.

The researchers pointed out that the contrasts they discovered were open to multiple possible interpretations. Autistic adults may have reported restricting their behaviors out of self-awareness or due to actual deficiencies in their driving. These difficulties and/or decreased driving could also explain the greater rate of reported violations.

The study team said respondents with autism could simply just be more honest than respondents without the condition.

“In driving research, it’s well established that people have a positive bias when reporting their own driving skills,” Schultheis said. “Because the study relied on self-reported answers, we can’t rule out whether the respondents with autism were simply being more descriptive and honest about their difficulties than the control group.”

The researchers also noted that difficulties reported by those with autism didn’t focus on one particular area of driving – such as reaction time.

“It suggests that the challenges these individuals are facing are more global than specific,” Daly said.

“This is a first step toward identifying, categorizing and quantifying challenges that may exist in this population,” Schultheis concluded. “What we find will help determine what needs there may be for interventions, from driver education programs to different kinds of training exposures.”