The Three A’s: Autism, Asperger’s and Automobiles – Part 4 (Visualization)

Let’s continue with driving scenarios, looking at a mix of visual-motor and cognitive factors requiring visualization, divided attention and flexibility.  One might say, the motor under the hood is only as good as the visual-motor guiding it (did I really say that?).  I’m fully aware that these are sweeping generalizations we’re making here that involve accepting some basic premises that do not apply to all individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

A very basic situation requiring you as a driver to read the mind of another driver is a one lane road onto which someone may be backing their car out of her driveway.  Drivers vary in their skill to maneuver, so you can’t assume that because someone’s rear lights are on and they’re backing out that they will necessarily proceed with caution.  Here’s an example of someone backing out who’s a bit unpredictable:

So if I’m coaching a novice driver, I’d advise that when you see someone in a driveway with their backup lights on, slow down and give that driver the courtesy of backing out and entering the roadway before proceeding.  That a simple algorithm, and a guideline that someone with AS can catalogue, store, and retrieve readily in real time.

Here, in contrast, is a scenario that is more complex.


The top image shows the view from the bottom of a slope of a two lane road heading downhill.  The driver in the car proceeding in the left lane won’t see that the lane that he’s in has a left turn arrow at the bottom of the descent.  Because there is no overhead signage, cars in the right lane sometimes try to cut over to the left lane at the last moment.  Complicating this, cars in the left lane that don’t intend to turn left will not always get into the right lane as a courtesy, since there isn’t a “left turn only” indication.  Further complicating matters, there is a merge ramp on to this short stretch from a highway adding to the guessing game that drivers have to execute about how other drivers will proceed through the intersection.  Believe it or not, until a couple of years ago there wasn’t a traffic light from the view that you see, which happens to be the driveway exiting our office.  Familiarity with an area helps a driver understand what decisions other drivers typically make and anticipate how the speed of the car, it’s relative angle and its wheel position as it proceeds all help to reveal the other driver’s intent.

Road rage can stem from many factors, and there’s even a website that will calculate your road rage potential.   Aside from the obvious factors of impatience and easy annoyance at factors beyond one’s control, territoriality, and the like, one huge factor in my opinion is the lack of empathy that may relate to Theory of Mind (ToM).  Thus far we’ve been discussing ToM angles from the point of view of the driver with AS who may have difficulty juggling all of the decisions to be made in complex driving conditions.  Compounding the situation is a driver prone toward road rage who finds it hard to believe that another driver “just did that stupid thing”.  Or that anyone driving wouldn’t take into account how their actions affect other drivers.  Empathy while driving is largely predicated on the ability to visualize what the situation looked like from the vantage point of other drivers instead of only your vantage point.  Here is a very good compilation on Aspies learning to drive.  To the point: “Remain calm when other drivers break the rules of the road and be ready for when they do. People with Aspergers tend to follow the rules of the road and the signs concretely – sometimes to a fault. Anticipate the actions of other cars by observing their behavior – again, the most important thing is to pay attention to other cars.”


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