The Autist Becomes the Instructor: The DRIVING Instructor!!

Before we give our kids the keys to the car, we to teach them to drive. I can’t think of anything that “better” brought out and demonstrated my symptoms as someone with high functioning autism than teaching my kiddos to drive!

As a homeschool mom, I love to serve (You can read about my love of serving in my post, “The Gift of a Servant’s Heart and an Autistic Mind.“), and I am used to teaching my kids all kinds of things.

Nothing, however, prepared me for this experience.

Rather than questionnaires, the test for adult high functioning autism could actually be to put the adult in the position of driving instructor.

I could have been diagnosed years ago!

The diagnostician’s checklist could contain items like the ones that follow:

  • Did the individual at any time over-respond to small unexpected movements of the car (ex. a 2 millimeter deviation from the straight path of the vehicle)?
  • At any time did the individual pull their feet up on the seat, wrap their arms around their legs and rock back and forth?
  • Would the student be less surprised by a literal deer in the headlights than the reactions of the individual?
  • Does the individual have a need for the student to engage in exactly the same behaviors the individual would have in the same driving situation, a deviation from which causes stress and extreme anxiety to the individual?
  • Does the individual have an overwhelming need to control the student giving far too many directions and criticisms?
  • Do otherwise productive and successful driving sessions too often end in a frustrated and defeated student and an extremely overstimulated individual?

You get my point.

The Best of Intentions…

The problem at my house is that there is no one else to serve as the driving instructor, and there are not resources to pay for one. In short, my daughters are stuck with me. (If I believed I was endangering myself or my daughters, I would not assist them in this way. Budget notwithstanding, we would seek other methods to accomplish our goal.)

Typically, I struggle the most the first time out with each daughter.

I remember naively heading out with my oldest my oldest daughter and her newly acquired driver’s permit thinking excitedly that we were about to embark a crucial step toward her adulthood and independence.

Little did I know we were about to learn exactly what made each of us tick. Ouch!

What made me tick was the lack of control, the difficulty communicating with her as she tried to maneuver a car as a new driver, and the sudden unexpected movements of the vehicle as she tried to work all of the controls (pushing too hard on the brakes, over-turning the steering wheel, etc.)

What made her tick was me.


…Sometimes Aren’t Enough…

With my second daughter, I again thought I was ready. I had been through this once before and knew what to expect.

Turns out that just like homeschooling, each unique student required a learned differently. We optimistically hopped in the car.

Though this daughter controlled the care more effectively, she also proved much less likely to want to accept and listen to my advice. More confident than her sister, she put the pedal down and and never looked back. I felt like I was in a some type of race car.

A more competent student meant less control for the instructor resulting in more anxiety for all. After we drove that first time, we crawled home totally deflated and regrouped.

…To Overcome Difficulty

I should have learned by this point, right?

Well, I had!

A move to Colorado put us near my sister and her family. Her super-patient husband, a manager for FedEx, trains their drivers as part of his day job. Enter a new driving instructor. YES!!!

For a brief period of time, my third daughter, Emma, enjoyed patient driving instruction.

She returned from each session happy, confident, and ready for more.

And then we again moved out of state. Sigh.

Now this daughter outshines her sisters.

In order to focus, for example, she listens to the radio. Though a bit overwhelming for me while trying to focus on helping her, I can handle that. I  could even handle the way her head bops from side to side as she enjoys the music if it did not result in the tiniest, teensiest movement of the vehicle back and forth off a straight path. As her head tips to the right, her hands move almost imperceptibly to the left causing a nearly undetectable movement of the car in that direction.

To her it feels as though we are smoothly following a straight trajectory down the road. To me it feels like we are proceeding with the undulatory (wave-like) locomotion of a snake. This movement, my sensory sensitive mind cannot well tolerate. Heaven help me when this happens!

The Willingness to Change What You Do and How You Communicate About It…

Ok, so with a daughter and a half yet to achieve a driver’s license, we developed a procedure to successfully complete the training, take care of the needs of each of the individuals involved (whether emotional, mental or sensory) and to protect our relationships (the stress of driving under these conditions would test even the strongest of relationships).

The Driving Procedure:

  • An alternate instructor is sought out and used whenever possible.
  • Full acknowledgement is made by myself that no prizes will be received for outstanding instruction.
  • I complement any and all positive achievements and efforts of my daughters.
  • My fabulous daughters award points to me for good intentions and willingness to participate in driving sessions.
  • We embark upon driving sessions only when everyone is in a calm, stable mood.
  • Efforts are made to target driving times when there are no activities or events immediately before or after the session.
  • We consciously and carefully consider the time of day, intended route and skill to be practiced prior to each session.
  • Discussion is had immediately following a driving session to review all areas needing improvement followed by a reiteration of all achievements, thus, ending the session on a positive note.
  • Maybe most importantly, I talk to my daughters about what they need to think about as they become parents and teach their own kids to drive. (For my kid(s) with autism, they will need to have actual instruction of what they will need to communicate so they will have a conscious awareness of those lessons to cover. How many of you parents received instruction on how to give driving instruction?)

…Can Make All the Difference

With the above steps in place, we are much more successful, and I feel it is safe for me to continue to work with them on their driving. When I am already overstimulated or overwhelmed, we don’t go driving. If I can’t handle listening to the radio, we don’t listen to it. When one of us feels we could do a light easy drive, we do that. If both my daughter and I are prepared to tackle the highway on a given day, off we go!

We do what we can do, and we do it to the best of our ability. We acknowledge and respect our limitations while acknowledging and praising our efforts. In this way, we survive the driving session learning one new skill at a time, meeting each other’s individual needs, and devoting time, attention and respect to our relationship.

She can be driven to success with Her Autism!!!

(Note:  Never undertake any action that may endanger yourself or thers. If you feel that driving, teaching others to drive or any other activity would put you or others into danger, please always ask for assistance before engaging in the activity!!)

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Autism and Driving

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