Letting any teen behind the wheel of a car is nerve-wracking for parents, but if your teen has autism, you may wonder if driving is even possible.
Well, a new study offers some comfort because it found that kids with autism who aren't intellectually disabled are probably capable of driving a car safely, though they may need more practice time before they get their license.
The small study found that young people with autism had more trouble maintaining their speed and staying in their lane on driving simulators than their peers without autism. But in a small subgroup of drivers who were already licensed, the researchers saw no significant differences in driving between the group with autism and the group without.
"In the ASD [autism spectrum disorder] community, there's a lot of reluctance when it comes to driving, and parents may assume teens will have driving problems," said study author Kristina Patrick. She was a Ph.D. student at Drexel University in Philadelphia at the time the study was conducted.
"Driving is a complex task, and people with autism may do best learning gradually. We're not trying to say that people with ASDs can't drive, but it may be harder for them early on," she explained. Patrick is now a pediatric neuropsychology fellow at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Thomas Frazier, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, agreed with Patrick.
"Cognitively able individuals with autism spectrum disorder may be able to learn to drive to the level of other licensed drivers, but may need gradual practice to learn the skills," he said.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes a variety of symptoms such as challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks.
The researchers estimated that only about 33 percent of teens with autism have a driver's license, compared to 84 percent of teens without autism.
The study involved 100 young people from 16 to 26 years old. Half had autism, and half did not. The groups were similar in age, gender, driver's license status and IQ.
All of the participants underwent a structured driving assessment with a virtual reality driving simulator.
Patrick said the simulated driving situations got increasingly difficult. First, participants were just driving on a rural road, and then the researchers added different challenges, such as engaging in a conversation while driving, driving behind a truck or changing speeds.
The researchers measured basic driving skills, including being able to maintain a consistent speed and staying in one lane.
Both groups were able to adhere to the speed limit well. But drivers with autism had more variability in speed and lane positioning, particularly as the driving tasks became more complex.
Those differences faded when the researchers looked only at those with driver's licenses. However, Patrick noted that this was a very small group -- just seven of those with autism and seven without autism had a driver's license.
"The study points to the fact that people with autism may have greater difficulty acquiring driving skills initially and that they may need more gradual or extended practice to acquire driving skills, but once they are experienced and well-practiced, they seem to be able to approximate the driving skills of neurotypical individuals," Frazier said.
One strength that people with autism may bring to driving is that they tend to be "rule-followers," according to Patrick. "Parents have reported that kids with autism adhere to speed limits and follow the rules of the road more than their siblings," she noted.
However, that tendency can also be a problem when driving because people with autism may be more likely to assume that other drivers will also obey all driving rules, and won't anticipate that someone might not stop at a stop sign, for example, Patrick added.
The study was published recently in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Learn more about autism and driving from Autism Speaks.
This content is intended for informational purposes only. It should not replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you have a medical emergency, call 911 or your doctor immediately.