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New Study Looks At How High-Functioning Autistic Teens Approach Driving


Teen Driver - Ed Cunicelli, courtesy The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Teen Driver - Ed Cunicelli, courtesy The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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A new study finds that two-thirds of American teens of driving age, 15- to 18-years old, with a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD) currently drive or are planning to drive. The research also revealed that these teens have common characteristics.

The study, the first of its kind, conducted by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies, appears in the January issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Little known about teens with HFASD and driving

Teens with HFASD have subtle impairments in motor skills and coordination, communication, social interaction, and difficulty controlling their emotions.  Researchers noted that many of these same capabilities come into play when driving.

“Little is known about how HFASDs affect a person’s ability to drive safely,” said study lead author and developmental pediatrician Dr. Patty Huang.

“Over the past decade, the rate of children diagnosed with an HGASD has increased, meaning more of those kids are now approaching driving age. Car crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers, so it is important that we understand how HFASDs impact driving and how to develop appropriate educational and evaluation tools.”

About the study

Researchers surveyed about 300 parents of teens with HFASD and discovered a few predictive characteristics among those teens who are likely to become drivers. These included:

  • At least 17 years old
  • Enrolled in full-time regular education
  • Planning to attend college
  • Having held a paid job outside the home
  • Having a parent who has taught another teen to drive
  • Inclusion of driving-related goals in the teen’s individualized education plan

As parents of most teens approaching driving age are well aware, driving is considered more or less a rite of passage. Researchers found that parents of kids with HFASD commonly ask how they should handle their teen learning how to drive.

Dr. Huang said that knowing the predictive characteristics can help The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies prepare guidance for the families.

“In Pennsylvania, it’s the law for teens to have a doctor’s sign-off before they can get a learner’s permit and that makes it easier to address driving-specific concerns,” Dr. Huang noted. “In states that don’t have those laws, it’s an issue that physicians should be prepared to address with their patients and their parents.”

How parents can assess readiness of HFASD teens to drive

According to the researchers, parents who are attempting to determine if their teen with HFASD is ready to begin driving, it might be helpful to make an appointment with a specialist.  An occupational therapist or a driving instructor, for example, may be able to offer guidance on breaking driving lessons into steps that are easier for teens with HFASD to handle and practice.

Dr. Huang said that this study lays the groundwork for future research into improving the ability of parents to assess readiness to drive among teens with HFASD.

Three key stages leading to driving readiness include assessing fitness to drive, providing adequate driver training, and addressing problems if a crash occurs.

More information on helping teens with special needs learn to drive is available at teendriversource.org.

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