In a recent study, researchers at Drexel University have found significant differences in the driving behaviors of autistic adults in comparison to neurotypical individuals. With the autism diagnosis rate growing each year, it is important that this study identifies whether the autism population has unmet needs that need to be fulfilled to help them drive safely. Driving is a key element of independent functioning, and it is important to identify what support is needed in order to help autistic adults have this ability.
Dr. Maria Schultheis, associate professor of psychology at Drexel, states, “When we investigate [how] 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.” She continues, “That question is pivotal to shape and inform the goals of long-term research — and is especially important when we turn to look at a developmental difference like autism, where there has been too little research to establish whether widespread driving difficulties exist.”
The needs of autistic adults are often overlooked, and the few studies regarding driving have primarily focused on adolescents and new drivers, as opposed to experienced adult drivers. This new study by Drexel, published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, used a validated survey that had been extensively used in driving research, asking adult licensed drivers with autism about their real-world driving experiences. It focused on reports of 78 drivers with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), in comparison to 94 drivers without an ASD.
Dr. Brian Daly, assistant professor of psychology at Drexel, and lead author of the study, states, “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.” According to the study, most adults with autism spectrum disorders reported earning their drivers’ licenses at a later age. In addition, they tend to drive much less frequently, and they put restrictions on themselves, such as avoiding highways, or only driving during the daytime. Furthermore, most of the adults studied reported having experiences with traffic violations.
The violations may be due to reduced driving exposure, a result of their restrictive behaviors, or actual difficulties and deficiencies in their driving abilities. However, the participants on the autism spectrum may have given more honest answers than their counterparts. Dr. Schultheis states, “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.” Furthermore, Dr. Daly and Dr. Schultheis noted was that the difficulties adults with autism reported did not pertain to a particular area. Dr. Daly states, “It suggests that the challenges these individuals are facing are more global than specific.”
This was an essential study to help bring light to one of the barriers that adults on the autism spectrum face in their daily lives. As a result of these findings, more support needs to be given to help autistic adults as they learn the skills needed to drive, as driving provides an opportunity for them to feel independent, and yet included in a societal norm. In the next phase of research, the team is using driving simulation in Schultheis’ lab to capture aspects of actual driving performance in adults on the autism spectrum.