The Three A’s: Autism, Asperger’s and Automobiles – Part 2

In Part 1 I mentioned that there are certain “driving readiness” skills related to visual spatial judgement acquired through organized sports that might position an Aspie teen to encounter more success when first learning to drive.  Those of us who have helped teach our children learn to drive can relate to this.  Some otherwise neurotypical teens will make judgements behind the wheel that leave us cringing in the passenger’s seat in terms of how much space exists between our side of the car and a parked car our teen is about to side-swipe.  Or, the lack of judgement in opening the car door on the driver’s side into the flow of traffic – all very subtle judgements, and ones that are challenging to master in real time.

So let’s break down these judgements into two categories, ones that involve other people’s actions and ones that don’t.  The former can involve pedestrians crossing the road, cars stopping short, reckless or risky drivers, and rule-violating drivers.  The latter can involve pulling into designated parking spaces, parallel parking, pulling around a car who is double parked, and going through a toll booth.  The latter category primarily involves one’s own judgement, and is largely not time-base.  It therefore doesn’t present as much of a challenge to Aspies compared to the former category, nor does it present as much potential danger.

Let’s first consider the case of a pedestrian.  In fact, in preparing someone with AS to understand the mind of other drivers, it might be helpful to learn to read situations as a pedestrian.  Beach areas are a great place to start, because signs signal drivers to yield to pedestrians who are in the crosswalk. But does that mean that the driver will obey the sign?  Don’t bet on it.  What’s the reaction of someone with AS who enters the crosswalk, only to have a thoughtless and indifferent driver nearly take his underwear off as he whizzes by?

This would seem to be a good place to start in terms of trying to read the mind of another driver.  Ironically, that driver who’s whizzing by is unlikely to be another individual with AS, since as a rule they are very abiding rule followers and will heed the sign yielding to the pedestrian.  As you’re stepping into the crosswalk with your teen, it’s the perfect opportunity to have them gauge the speed of a vehicle approaching the crosswalk area and judge the “body language” of the car and driver.  Does the car seem to be slowing down as it approaches, or is it maintaining the same speed?  Judging by the approach, is it safe to enter the crosswalk?  If the car doesn’t seem to be slowing down, will you freeze in the center of the road, gallop to make it to the opposite side, or are you better off retreating to the curb?  That depends on whether there are now cars approaching the crosswalk coming from the opposite direction!

We’ve only scratched the surface of complexities involved in these judgements.  If you take a look at the contents of this handbook of driving simulation, you’ll see some pertinent topics such as Chapter 24, The Novice and Teen Driver. Chapters 42 and 43 on modelling driver behavior, and Chapter 47 on Psychiatric Disorders and Driving Performance.  These include anxiety disorders to mood disorders, psychotic disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and personality disorders, but more attention needs to be paid to the unique preparatory mindset of individuals with AS.  I do very much like the continuum-based model introduced in this chapter of “Type 1/Type 2” crash risk scenarios, related to underarousal versus overarousal of the human perceptual apparatus and low versus high presence states. In this model, “Type 1” crashes are provoked by excessively monotonous driving conditions resulting in perceptual disengagement and “Type 2” crashes occur under excessively complex driving conditions; the more variable, challenging, and stimulus-rich a scenario is, the greater the “Type 2” crash risk.

3 thoughts on “The Three A’s: Autism, Asperger’s and Automobiles – Part 2

  1. If this book is for autistic people, why would you use terms that are easy to misunderstand, like having a driver take off his underwear?

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