Do people with autism struggle with driving?

June 26, 2014

In the first pilot study asking adults on the autism spectrum about their experiences with driving, researchers at Drexel University found significant differences in self-reported driving behaviors and perceptions of driving ability in comparison to non-autistic adults. As the population of adults with autism continues growing rapidly, the survey provides a first step toward identifying whether this population has unmet needs for educational supports to empower safe driving – a key element of independent functioning in many people's lives.

"Previous research in my lab has included extensive research in 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, PhD, 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. 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 yet whether widespread driving difficulties exist."

Only a few previous studies have examined driving ability in individuals with autism, and those studies focused on adolescents and new drivers rather than experienced adult drivers. These studies relied on parent surveys and evaluations of discrete aspects of driving performance. The new Drexel study, published early online this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, used a validated survey that has been extensively used in driving research, and asked adult licensed drivers on the autism spectrum to describe their first-hand, real-world driving experiences.

"We were beginning to see discussion in the research literature that aspects of , such as neurocognitive challenges and social recognition difficulties, could make it likely that members of this population would experience significant challenges with driving," said the study's lead author Brian Daly, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences. "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."

In this survey, with autism spectrum disorders reported earning their drivers' licenses at a later age, driving less frequently and putting more restrictions on their own driving behaviors (such as avoiding driving on highways or at night), on average compared to non-autistic adults. The respondents with autism spectrum disorders also reported more traffic violations.

Because this pilot study was relatively small and based on self-reports of 78 ASD respondents and 94 non-ASD comparison participants, Schultheis and Daly noted that the differences they found were open to several possible interpretations. Autistic adults may have reported driving less often and restricting their behaviors out of self-awareness of actual difficulties or deficiencies in their driving. These difficulties and/or reduced driving exposure could also explain the higher rate of reported violations.

Alternatively, it is possible that the respondents on the autism spectrum were more honest in their answers, but no worse at driving than everyone else.

"In driving research, it's well established that people have a positive bias when reporting their own driving skills," said Schultheis. "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."

One intriguing finding that Daly and Schultheis noted was that the difficulties adults with autism reported were not clustered in any specific areas, such as problems related to social processing of other drivers' or pedestrians' expected behaviors, or difficulties with neurocognitive aspects of driving such as motion perception and reaction time.

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

"This is such an important study," said Paul Shattuck, PhD, an associate professor and director of the research program area in life course outcomes at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, who was not involved in conducting the study. "Cognitively-able adults on the autism spectrum face many barriers to full participation in society. Facilitating access to transportation options will increase the capacity for these adults to contribute to their communities."

Daly and Schultheis are continuing to investigate driving behavior in adults with autism through further research, with funding from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the first autism research center focused on a public health science approach. In the next phase of research, the team is using driving simulation in Schultheis' lab to objectively capture aspects of actual driving performance in adults on the autism spectrum. Individuals interested in enrolling in these studies should contact schultheis@drexel.edu.

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

Explore further: US adults with autism may face housing crisis

More information: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, link.springer.com/article/10.1 … 07/s10803-014-2166-y

Related Stories

US adults with autism may face housing crisis

November 13, 2013
(HealthDay)—Adults with autism face a shortage of housing and support services in the United States, according to a new survey.

Adults with Asperger Syndrome at significantly higher risk of suicidal thoughts than the general population

June 25, 2014
Adults with the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger Syndrome are nine times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than people from the UK general population, according to the first large-scale clinical study ...

Youth with autism spectrum disorder need better health care transition services

June 24, 2014
As of 2014, approximately one out of every 68 children born has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Historically, less than one in four youth with ASD successfully transitions ...

Science behind driving behavior, aptitude explored in new blog

June 11, 2014
For every law-abiding motorist, there is another driver who is breaking the speed limit and cutting off other drivers in traffic. For every person who easily follows driving directions to reach a destination, there are others ...

New study examines social isolation of young adults with autism spectrum disorder

May 2, 2013
Young adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to never see friends, never get called by friends, never be invited to activities and be socially isolated.

Many health woes common in autistic adults, study finds

May 14, 2014
Autistic adults are much more likely than others to suffer from depression, high blood pressure, obesity and additional health woes that may partly result from their social isolation, new U.S. research suggests.

Recommended for you

High quality early intervention for children with autism quickly results in costs savings

August 8, 2017
One in every 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neuro-developmental disorder that results in difficulty socializing and communicating needs and desires, and often is accompanied by restricted ...

Research identifies effects of cognitive behaviour therapy on parents of children with autism

August 1, 2017
Parents of children with autism experience a greater impact from their child's therapy than once thought, according to new research out of York University's Faculty of Health.

People with autism are less surprised by the unexpected

July 31, 2017
Adults with autism may overestimate the volatility of the world around them, finds a new UCL study published in Nature Neuroscience.

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Females with autism show greater difficulty with day-to-day tasks than male counterparts

July 14, 2017
Women and girls with autism may face greater challenges with real world planning, organization and other daily living skills, according to a study published in the journal Autism Research.

Researchers investigate possible link between carnitine deficiency and autism

July 13, 2017
Researchers are always looking for new clues to the causes of autism, with special emphasis on prevention or treatment. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Beaudet has been following clinical and genetic clues in patients ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.