The Three A’s: Autism, Asperger’s and Automobiles

We wrote last week about the critical nature of driving, and how it involves anticipating what other drivers do.  It is challenging for any new driver to read the road, and this would seem to be even more challenging for individuals on the autistic spectrum.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has excellent reference information on their website providing tips to teens and parents.  The information is excellent for drivers of any age and neurotype.  My father is fond of reminding me of one of the driving moments we had together when we first started.  After reminding me to check intersections carefully before proceeding, I proceeded rather briskly as we approached the next one because, after all, at age 17 we’re always in a hurry to get somewhere.  My father implored me: “Slow down!  How do you know someone won’t be going through the intersection?”  “But Dad”, I told him confidently, “the traffic light was green; and if you can’t trust a green light, who can you trust?”.  It was semi-amusing at the time, but underscored that in one sense all beginning drivers’ have a hint of Asperger’s thought processes – and I’m mindful that it’s only a hint.  I was analyzing the rules of the road objectively and from within, and not worrying about anticipating whether others who I might encounter would be following the same rules of the road at the same time.

When I introduced you to Aaron Likens last week, I had just started reading his book, Finding Kansas.  On the book’s website you’ll find a YouTube that shows Aaron at a podium giving a brief presentation, seated next to Temple Grandin.  As good a presenter as Aaron is, what caught my eye was watching Temple’s reaction to Aaron’s sense of timing and delivery of material that had the audience chuckling.  Her affect is flat, and she has no overt reaction to his humor.  What you’ll also gain a sense of by reading his book is that this presentation for Aaron was well-rehearsed.  One can visualize that in his mind he went over that delivery again and again with his father, Jim Likens, a Lutheran pastor who lends his insights to the book.

I raise this issue because the idea of Aaron being a race kart driver seems to fly in the face of my premise that many individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) may encounter difficulty in their early travels behind the wheel.  Without addressing this directly, Aaron hints at this paradox in several different ways in his book.  He needs order and he needs predictability.  He doesn’t like surprises.  He’s okay with a social setting of one on one, but introduce more people and it simply introduces more variability.  Less black and white, and more shades of gray.  And there’s nothing more unsettling to Aaron than other people who don’t follow the rules, and compromise his efforts to be the best that he can be at what he is immersed in.  Kart racing was predictable for Aaron.  The number of drivers.  The positions.  The rules of engagement.  The path of the track.  The outcome may have been uncertain,, but the rules were clear.  On top of this, my hunch is that within the paradox there is Aaron’s fundamental love for the concept of racing, having grown up in Indianapolis.  As he alludes to in his YouTube video, had he grown up in St. Louis where he now lives, his obsession may have been baseball.  Which brings me to another general observation about learning to drive effectively.

Regarding the types of spatial judgements required, it is fair to say that the more experience one has with control of your body in space, and reacting to the periphery, the better one is positioned for the types of visual judgements in learning to drive.  It is also fair to conjecture that many individuals with AS haven’t had the type of exposure gained through gymnastics or organized sports as adolescents and teens that prepares the mind and body for the full cognitive scope of driving.  Aaron notes that when faced with new motoric situations, he can usually figure things out, but the ability to take extra time is crucial.  This has far reaching implications that I’ll discuss in Part 2.




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