Perspectives of Specialized Driving Instructors: Teaching Autistic Adolescents and Young Adults to Drive
Limited access to transportation may curtail the transition to independent adulthood for autistic adolescents, potentially curtailing their ability to attend school, participate in employment, and engage in social activities. Despite documented challenges in the demands of working memory, multitasking, and executive functioning among autistic adolescents—which have been linked to poor driving performance observed in driving simulators—nearly one-third of autistic adolescents and young adults obtain a driver’s license by age 21 (Curry et al., 2018). Given both the importance of safely encouraging independence and the potential for increased risk for adverse driving outcomes, research on driving among autistic adolescents and young adults is critical.
Our objective was to document driving instructors’ unique experiences and perspectives regarding the autistic adolescents’ training needs and recommendations for best practices to inform the development of tailored supports to optimize the safety of autistic adolescents as independent drivers.
We conducted interviews with 17 driving instructors who possessed specialized training to teach autistic adolescents and young adults to drive. Participants were recruited through snowball sampling. The semi-structured interview guide investigated: family engagement; instructors’ observations; educators’ instructional strategies; and recommendations for improving the learning-to-drive process. A directed content analysis approach informed the development of a coding scheme. Coded transcripts were reviewed to identify emergent themes.
Participating driving instructors primarily identified as occupational therapists. Key themes included: (1) importance of parent engagement; (2) fostering independence; (3) the need for individualization of instructional strategies; and (4) recommendations for best practices to enhance the learning–to-drive process. Instructors emphasized that parent engagement is critical in preparing autistic students to undertake on-road instruction and supporting skill development throughout the learning-to-drive process. While some families paradoxically limit adolescents’ independence in tasks of daily living despite wanting them to expand their independence by pursuing driving training, instructors believed that demonstrating independence through other activities (e.g., bike riding, directing a driver to school or work) was necessary for safely undertaking on-road instruction. Further, instructors shared how they extensively individualized their assessments and instruction, tailoring lessons over a prolonged period of time to promote safe driving and skill acquisition. Specific recommendations for enhancing the learning-to-drive process included standardizing educational approaches and refining clinical assessment tools to better support both specialized and non-specialized instructors in meeting the needs of autistic adolescents.
These first-hand accounts may help to better prepare parents, non-specialized driving instructors, and adolescents for independent licensure. The experience of driving instructors in this study highlights the need for ongoing parental engagement to support the learning-to-drive process and to foster the independence necessary to undertake highly individualized driving instruction. Efforts to support families by increasing utilization of tools and resources to strengthen adolescent independence may help to better prepare youth for on-road instruction. These results also document the need to establish best practices and refine assessment tools and instructional strategies employed by educators. Future research to gather experiences with the learning-to-drive process among parents and autistic adolescents themselves is critical to improving our understanding of these families’ needs.