When parents of autistic teens prioritize independence, it can significantly help prepare their children for driving, according to a new study published in the journal Autism in Adulthood.

The study, compiled by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), involved in-depth interviews with specialized driving instructors who have worked specifically with young autistic drivers.

“What these specialized driving instructors told us about the disconnect between driving and other life skills was surprising,” said Benjamin E. Yerys, Ph.D., study author and psychologist at the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“Some parents may not let their autistic adolescents use a stovetop oven but are asking if their teens are ready to drive. Whether or not their children decide to drive, parents should encourage greater independence by encouraging them to get around on their own. Traveling independently by driving or other modes of transportation is key to continuing their education, working, and staying connected with friends and family.”

Driving instructors are an important resource for families, particularly for those with autistic teens learning to drive. However, because not much is known about the specific experience of teaching autistic teens how to drive, there are very few resources available to provide adolescents and families with proper guidance for the learning-to-drive process.

To help bridge this gap, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with specialized driving instructors who had experience working with autistic adolescents and young adults. The study is the first to examine the process and experience of driving instructors who provide behind-the-wheel training specifically for this population.

The findings reveal that driving instructors view parents as essential partners in supporting their efforts in teaching driving skills and promoting independence.

Participating instructors said parents can support and prioritize independence by encouraging their autistic adolescents to develop life skills, such as mowing the lawn, cooking, and taking public transportation, before learning to drive.

The driving instructors note that specific approaches must be tailored to meet the unique needs of each autistic adolescent driver, reflecting the spectrum that affects each adolescent differently.

“Through our interviews with specialized driving instructors, we learned they believe parents are a critical partner in preparing for and undertaking independent driving,” said Rachel K. Myers, Ph.D., lead author of the study and scientist at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

“Instructors recommend that parents help their children develop independent life skills, including the use of alternative forms of transportation such as bicycling or mass transit, and to practice pre-driving skills, such as navigation, before undertaking on-road driving lessons.”

Other suggestions include the use of state-level vocational rehabilitation services to provide financial support for instruction, identifying and promoting prerequisite life skills prior to undertaking driving, parent-supervised driving instruction in partnership with professional driving instruction, and tailoring instruction to address the particular needs of learner drivers.

According to previous CHOP research, nearly one-third of autistic adolescents obtain a driver’s license by the time they are 21 years old, which may improve their ability to transition into independent adulthood.

The study was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, Center for Autism Research, and Division of Emergency Medicine, as well as the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

Source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia