Wednesday, October 20, 2010

License to Worry

I know of several teenagers and several adults, both on and not-on the autism spectrum, who don’t drive or don’t want to. It could be because they realize that they’re too easily distracted, or that they know it’s a huge responsibility and don’t feel ready or comfortable, or even that they simply aren’t interested. I’m sure there are many reasons why people who don’t drive do not. Unfortunately, my son, who was diagnosed with autism at age three and didn’t start talking until age five, does not feel that any of those reasons apply to him. He wants to drive. And he turns sixteen next week.

Nigel has always wanted to be like everybody else. I know this because even before he could talk, he would try to interact with other children by going up to them and laughing in their faces or bumping into them in the hopes that they would play with him. Without words, he tried to engage them. When he started learning to talk, he would go up to kids at a playground, repeat lines from his favorite movies, mixing up words he didn’t know, and the other kids would ask, “What language is he speaking?” Years later, when he was being bullied at the bus stop, I told him that I would drive him to school instead. His response: “But I just want to take the bus so I can be like everybody else.” He is nothing if not determined.

I know that there are people on the autism spectrum who can and do drive. But Nigel is just not there yet, and it may be a while. It has nothing to do with his ability to operate a vehicle. If anything, that will be his strength. The problem is his high distractibility. And his five-year emotional delay. Those are the main things standing in the way of him getting his driver’s license. I wouldn’t feel confident with an eleven-year-old driving, even if he is 5’10”.

I’ve written about this subject before and received all sorts of well-meaning comments ranging from letting him practice so that he gets familiar with the feel of the car (definitely not the issue), to letting him race go-karts (he has for years), to the patronizing all-parents-are-nervous-about-their-kids-driving (not the same thing). Of course all parents are nervous about their kids driving. When my younger son, fourteen and not autistic, starts driving, I will be worried. But nowhere near as worried as I am about Nigel driving, that’s for certain. It’s a far different level of nervousness. They’re both my sons, and on that level I worry equally, but one son has major challenges with judgment and awareness. And on that level I’m far more nervous.

When Nigel started talking about wanting to drive around five years ago, I almost had a panic attack. He knew then that he would have to wait, but I knew that he would have to wait longer than he anticipated. Last year when he turned fifteen, I talked with him about that, but he still wanted to know when. He wanted to know just how long he would have to wait. I told him that we’d revisit the idea in a year, and he has repeatedly reminded me in the past month that the time has come. Ugh. How will he handle the disappointment if it’s determined that he can’t drive? He’s not content to just maneuver the car around an empty parking lot or down a dirt road. Driving go-karts, though still fun, is not nearly enough. He wants his learner’s permit, and he wants it badly.

And there’s my answer, if I’m aware enough to realize it. He’ll pass the written test (I’m sure with flying colors, due to his near-photographic memory), and he’ll get his permit. And maybe, for now, that’s all he wants. He wants to have his learner’s permit like “everybody else.” He just wants to have it. And I’m hoping that having it will satisfy him for a while. I know that eventually he’ll want to get out on the street, but we don’t have to hit the road anytime soon. And when he starts asking to do that, I’ll sign him up with a professional driving instructor. I’ll still worry, of course. But at least I don’t have to yet.

Anyway, I’m hoping.

                               Tanya writes TeenAutism.


  1. I never thought of this before - I totally hear you '
    Good luck to the both of you

  2. Luckily I did not have to face this issue with my oldest as he has a seizure disorder on top of the aspergers and can't drive yet. My younger one is a senior in high school and just got his learner's permit this summer. We are very lucky because he is very reticent about driving. truthfully it scares the bejeezus out of him. This is good. Let him take his time and go slow. Let him understand the awesome responsibility that driving a car happens to be. I don't care if he doesn't get a license for years.I happen to agree with the author the issue is the maturity level of a person with aspergers when it comes to driving not their driving ability. The reality is that one day their maturity will be on par with their peers but to day is not the day.Unfortunately some things are what they are and having them take their time is just fine.

  3. My 18 YO daughter is on the higher end of the spectrum and is still not ready to drive. When she was 14-15, she really thought she was going to be getting her driver's permit the minute she turned 15 1/2. We had to have a long conversation about how NOT everyone who turns 16 gets their license. The more she has become aware of the difficulties of driving, witnessed accidents in the high school parking lot, and watched her two siblings (one older, one younger) drive, she has come to realize that she truly is not ready for that responsibility. She is not able to concentrate on multiple tasks at once, nor is she able to make snap decisions that driving requires.
    I will have to drive her to and from community college starting next fall, but it's a small price to pay for her safety and the safety of others. God bless all who face this challenge.

  4. From the way you describe your son wanting to be like everybody else I don't think he'll be satisfied just by having his permit; he's going to want to get behind the wheel.
    No parent likes to disappoint their child but you have to consider the safety of other motorists and pedestrians. How would you feel if Nigel got distracted and caused an accident in which someone was injured or killed? Could you afford a possible multi million dollar lawsuit?
    You can dismiss the possibility that something like that would happen but driving a car is probably the most dangerous activity that people engage in on a regular basis. If you have the slightest doubt that Nigel shouldn't drive then you have an obligation to society to tell Nigel no, you won't permit him to drive. Don't try and soften the blow by allowing him to drive short distances on familiar roads during the daytime, or whatever compromise you might be considering. If he's anything like my sons (neurotypical but VERY intent on getting their own way) once you let him drive under restricted circumstances he'll just argue and whine for more.

  5. tanya,
    you know your son better than anyone and i have no doubt that you are making - and will continue to make - informed, responsible decisions based on safety but with a keen sensitivity to nigel's needs and desires. follow your gut. you know him best.

  6. Jill - thank you for your concern. As I wrote in the third paragraph, "But Nigel is just not there yet, and it may be a while." I will stand by that. Nigel's disappointment if he is not able to drive will not sway my decision. I mentioned his disappointment because I care about his feelings.

  7. I remember when I passed driver's ed I told my Mom I was ready to get my license. her response was, "You'll get your license when **I** feel your ready to get your license, and not a minute sooner."
    And it was like 6 months before she let me take the test and get my license.
    She played the "bad cop" in this and it made me so mad - but what choice did I have?
    There are lot of kids who get their licenses long before they are truly ready, I think, and you just aren't going to let Nigel be one of them (autism or not). I hope that makes sense. In other words, it doesn't have to just be about the autism.

  8. Difficult conundrum. I think it's a hard set to balance, his desire to be like everyone else against the reality that he just isn't ready emotionally. But I think it's good to take things gradually with what you will allow and being firm with what you won't allow.

  9. As I watched my daughter carry a tray across a restaurant this morning, and watched the tray tilt, and her water pour off and onto the floor, (unbeknownst to her) my thought will she ever be able to drive when she doesn't know where she is in space? I do not envy you...but I will be watching and learning from you!

  10. If you're anywhere near Houston you might be interested in this link:
    It was forwarded to my by a volunteer with the NAA...her son is 10 so I don't think she has any personal experience with them...but now we know it's out there, huh.

  11. My son is in the same boat (or should I say "vehicle" given the circumstances!). He is HF, attends regular classes in a regular high school and has been mainstreamed since he started in first grade.
    He didn't start asking about driving until he was about 15 1/2, so we set about getting "THE BOOK" for him to study and contacting our vocational rehabilitation services office. They have a state program that puts him one on one with a driving instructor BEFORE he goes to any type of driver's ed (once he gets his permit). So he didn't get his permit until he was 16 and a few months. And he has driven with the instructor throughout the summer, ending the last week of September. He also signed up and took the driver's ed class in school his first 9 weeks. At the end of the Vocational Rehab course, the state said he had "passed the driving portion of his licensing test" (which means that he does NOT have to go to the DMV and perform a driving test with a State Trooper - the instructor is qualified to license him). And though he failed to pass the driving portion of the school's Driver's Ed class, he passed the written with flying colors. But the driving? Not so much!
    We've decided to keep him with his permit and continue to try. The certificate allowing him to get his license doesn't expire until a year from last month. But his ability to be vigilantly aware of his surroundings, coupled with about the same emotional lag (4-5 years) make it realistically unsafe to put him in a position that he could hurt or kill himself or others.
    I'm with you on every point you've made. I don't feel that anyone except you can really make that decision for him, so I'm not going to try and offer any sort of advice.
    I did want you to know that there is another parent with a teenage boy who sounds remarkably similar to yours in every way, struggling with the same issues and trying to do the very best possible thing for him - just like you are.

  12. DiVaughn - unfortunately we're not near Houston, but I checked out the website and got some helpful information. Thank you so much for recommending it!
    ShinyThings - I can't tell you how much I appreciate your comment! I am definitely going to see if our state offers any programs similar to what you described. The whole issue of "should he or shouldn't he?" is weighing heavily on my mind, and it means so much to know that I'm not alone in dealing with it. Thank you!

  13. i wish there were comforting words, but this is such a difficult topic. the conflict, obviously, is that you know him, his stress levels...whereas he understandably wants to achieve a classic 16year milestone. so, how to help him absorb the difficulties involved without hurting his feelings, his need to reach the milestones, very difficult. i just know he trusts you, and you trust him, so hopefully you guys can talk about it, communicate, find a safe way of approaching everything.
    yikes, so many thorny issues!