The Coveted Driver’s License. On Driving (or not) While Autistic3 min read

We have not even left the DMV parking lot when the uni­formed cop in the front seat demands, loudly and angrily, to know what I am doing. Stunned, I stammer out some inad­e­quate response, and this white-haired, mus­ta­chioed man tells me, in no uncer­tain terms, to get on the right side of the road because that is the premise of our whole dri­ving system. My road test is over before it even begins.


For as long as I can remember, I have been ter­ri­fied of dri­ving. When I was a kid, I would observe my par­ents and other adults as they drove their vehi­cles with second-nature com­pe­tence, and I was in awe of the ease with which they did it. It looked so dif­fi­cult, and so very, very con­fusing. It just takes prac­tice, they assured me. It just takes prac­tice.

But what if prac­tice doesn’t make per­fect? In my case, all the prac­tice in the world would never a driver make. I passed my road test on the second try—barely. I did it not because I wanted to, but because I was pres­sured into it.

The mes­sage from all sides was loud and clear: you can’t be inde­pen­dent if you can’t drive. I ran into guardrails, shop­ping carts, parked cars, and even the side of the house. I never once worked up the courage to tackle the highway. The stress of it was just too much.

I have poor spa­tial aware­ness and slow reflexes, I struggle to under­stand social cues (although I never failed to rec­og­nize the uni­versal middle-finger-lifted Eff You, and if I had a dollar for every time I was on the receiving end of that par­tic­ular ges­ture… well, you get the pic­ture), and quick thinking is not my forte, either.

Ultimately, I made the deci­sion not to drive at all. It wasn’t worth the par­a­lyzing anx­iety I would expe­ri­ence each time I sat behind that wheel, never mind the risk to life and limb, be they my own or someone else’s. It can be incon­ve­nient, sure, but thanks to the advent of social media, online shop­ping, and fast ship­ping, well, there are worse things than being a per­petual pas­senger.

It was as plain as the nose on your face that I was dif­ferent, but when I took that fateful road test, my Asperger’s syn­drome was as-yet undi­ag­nosed, and it would be another decade and a half before I learned that my dri­ving dif­fi­cul­ties were not my fault: as noted by The Autism Society, there are sev­eral “fac­tors and skills [that are] involved with dri­ving,” including motor coor­di­na­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion of social cues, and the ability to mul­ti­task. ASD, of course, can affect all of the above, so for folks on the spec­trum, learning to drive can be chal­lenging, impos­sible, or any­where in between.

The stigma is real, though. In many places, the obtaining of a driver’s license is viewed as a rite of passage—the power of the thrum­ming engine, the freedom of the open road, the inde­pen­dence, and so on. It is the stuff of count­less coming-of-age films and rock-n-roll anthems. Every teenager longs for the day they receive that all-important piece of rec­tan­gular poly­car­bonate granting them the priv­i­lege to drive them­selves where and whence they please.

Well, almost every teenager.

If you have ASD, diag­nosed or not, it can be a little more com­pli­cated. If you want to learn to drive, good for you, but if you don’t, the burden of parental and soci­etal expec­ta­tion is as real as the stigma. “You have to drive or you’ll never be able to do any­thing,” one of my class­mates gasped in horror when I insisted that I had no desire to get my license.

Even now, years later, other people are more con­cerned than I am about my inability to drive a car. Everything teaches us that a person can’t be inde­pen­dent if they do not or cannot drive. But, me? I can’t allow my sense of inde­pen­dence to hinge upon my inability to com­fort­ably and safely maneuver a vehicle through rush hour traffic. I have better things to worry about.

Asperger’s/ASD is a cru­cial part of my iden­tity. Neurologically-speaking, I’m hard­wired a little dif­fer­ently from most of the pop­u­la­tion, and that unique hard­wiring impacts nearly every aspect of my life.

It’s true that my ver­sion of inde­pen­dence may clash with that of the average neu­rotyp­ical person, but so what? It’s taken a long time, and it is an ongoing process, but I am learning to care a little less about the expec­ta­tions of others—and to quit apol­o­gizing for who and what I am.

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  1. I have observed for many years that people are as often defined by what they can not do as by those things that they can do. We hold com­pe­ti­tions to find the best of every­thing. Sometimes My greatest achieve­ment is simply get­ting through a day without doing any harm.

  2. This is extremely relat­able for me. I man­aged to get my dri­ver’s license in one try (the process involved a crap ton of addi­tional dri­ving lessons, a mul­ti­tude of panic attacks, and always having someone by my side), but I’ve never driven since. It requires too much focus and atten­tion to details, espe­cially if you actu­ally care about being a respon­sible driver. When I got off the car I could barely walk after the effort.

  3. I’m not diag­nosed (sus­pected, but I don’t have access to any kind of screening for adults where I am) but this sounds a lot like my expe­ri­ence with trying to learn to drive. At this point, I still can’t get enough hours to be allowed to take my test because I get over­whelmed and either filter every­thing, or can’t filter any­thing once I’m behind the wheel of a car. My work­place is actu­ally great about this, but there have been other jobs I’ve been turned down for because of it, even though dri­ving isn’t part of the job descrip­tion. But the idea of “you’ll never be inde­pen­dent if you can’t drive, so you absolutely must get your license?” Basically what my entire family except my grand­mothers say.

    But like you said in the article, inde­pen­dence, and even get­ting from place to place, doesn’t always mean having a piece of plastic and zooming around in a car. So thanks, I really appre­ci­ated this article.

  4. You know your­self best.

    I was not devel­op­men­tally ready to drive until the age of 23. (I just got my license last November. My dad says I am a good driver now!) Maybe you’ll be ready someday, or maybe you won’t. What’s more impor­tant is that you do not put your­self in an unsafe posi­tion.

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