The Coveted Driver’s License. On Driving (or not) While Autistic

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.

4 Comments

  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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