Mirror neurons. Seems like they’re an essential component of the brain that allows us to share empathy with one another. It is a close relative to theory of mind, the concept that accounts for how we are able to tell what other people are likely to be thinking. Simon Baron-Cohen has asserted that this is a fundamental deficit in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are essentially mind-blind to what others are thinking. If this is the case, and higher functioning individuals such as those with Asperger’s are more likely to be candidates to drive, how well equipped are they for this rite of passage? We’ve raised the issue before regarding teens with ADHD. But those on the spectrum face a more fundamental challenge if they lack or have difficulty adjusting their mirror neurons. A fundamental rule of the road, particularly for new drivers, is to drive defensively. This requires the driver to adopt the mindset, viewpoint, and visual judgement of other drivers on the road. Driving is as much a social act as it is a mechanical act, and difficulty in reading social cues of others is bound to make learning to drive more challenging for those with ASD.
Not everyone is enamored with Baron-Cohen’s ideas (if the name is familiar, it may be because he is the first cousin of Sascha Baron-Cohen, otherwise known as Borat), and it has created a backlash in some segments of the ASD community. It would therefore not be surprising if there were resistance to the suggestion that individuals with Asperger’s need to exert extra caution before going out on the road. Here is a website with some excellent advice and guidelines to consider about driving and Asperger’s. Among the twelve suggestions, number 7 is: Have a driving instructor assess your Aspergers teen’s visual/motor skills. Other sites have emphasized perceptual abilities, processing speed, mental flexibility, and capacity for judgement – skills that often mature later for individuals with ASD.
It may seem unusual, therefore, to find someone with Asperger’s who not only doesn’t fear driving, but who’s a race car driver! Enter Aaron Likens, who grew up in Indianapolis, home to the Indy 500, whose father instilled in him a passion for racing. He has an excellent blog with lots of useful information, and recently authored a book of autobiographical essays, Finding Kansas. I raise this issue to emphasize that rules of the road can be taught to any individual, but those with ASD will have to memorize and rehearse a greater repertoire rather than being able to anticipate the actions of others on the road based on general principles. In our practice, many of the “Aspie” boys (as the teens increasingly refer to themselves) have a fascination if not obsession with cars, and we currently have a patient whose goal it is to become a race driver. Aaron will be a particular inspiration to him, and involvement with some aspect of the sport is likely in his future, even if it is not behind the wheel. Inspiration comes from around the globe.