Autism and learning to drive

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
August 20, 2022

PinLearning to drive successfully can be testing for all of us, even at the best of times. However, for those of us with an autistic spectrum disorder, it can be more difficult. There will be the issues of reading and understanding the language involved in the rules of the road and applying them to certain traffic situations.  With all the distractions there can also be the matter of not being totally focused on the task at hand, which would be what's go on around you on the roads. The problems with interpreting body language, which could lead to you misinterpreting the intentions of other road users.

I could already see how to use the controls to drive a car, having observed others do it. Before long I realised it was going to take plenty of practise along the way, with lots of hard work since this was something new to me. In essence, I had a long road ahead, but I had the belief that I could get there with perseverance and determination. My perseverance and determination were fuelled by the fact that people I in my age group who I knew well had already passed their driving tests some years previously at the time. To begin with, being able to get the car moving was all that concerned me. I'd leave the safety aspect of it until I felt confident I would be able to drive on public roads using the controls with hardly any trouble at all. When learning to drive, nerves can understandably play an important part, since you become in control of your own destiny.

Being a driver means you're putting your life in your hands, those of your passengers, and of other road users as well. It reminded me of my time as a youngster when I had fear of speed, like things were spinning out of control and hurtling towards danger, with me being unable to do anything to retrieve the situation. That taught me driving too fast was obviously dangerous and, with me having a logical mind, thought that driving more slowly would be safer. Eventually I came to the conclusion that driving too slowly and cautiously can create dangers of its own making too, since it can result in traffic bunching up too closely behind you.

PinBefore applying to do the practical driving test everyone must pass a theory and hazard perception test, which consists of questions regarding road signs and signals, and perception of hazards on the road. There are books consisting of possible questions you may be asked and I saw it as a matter of learning. If you're behind a lorry indicating to turn left, it seems more logical to hold back and give it more room because, for a start, a lorry is a bigger and longer vehicle, and will thus need more room in the road in order to complete the turn safely.

A 'NO ENTRY' sign is a circular sign with a white bar in the middle. Being more of a visual learner I see this as acting like a barrier to entry. You may notice pictures on signs, which make it easier for road users to understand, for example, one with a picture of a cow in the middle will warn drivers to keep a watch out for possible cattle in the road ahead. The 30 sign means a maximum speed of 30 mph, and the traffic light symbol in the triangle would warn you of traffic lights ahead. To me this was simply a matter of common sense.

One book I read at the time, ‘How to pass your driving test’, I found especially beneficial because of the illustrations in cartoon form to help one to grasp driving principles. The one I've linked to here is a new edition compared to the one I read. I found the more exposure you have of it through reading and driving, the easier it will be for you to recognise what certain signs mean and when to apply what rules when driving in certain traffic situations. So you don’t have to remember everything you read. What you see on the roads can act as prompts.

Having started off in June 1999 I spent a couple of months in car parks getting used to the family car, by driving around in relatively quiet areas such as small car parks before progressing to a larger car park to get accustomed to driving at speeds close to that on a typical public road. It wasn't until August 1999 when I felt competent enough using the controls of the car that I decided to undertake and invest in driving lessons with a local instructor, having been recommended them by a friend, who advised they'd be my ideal instructor, since they wouldn't be quite so pushy, but still with enough enthusiasm about them to keep you motivated along the way. Being in a dual controlled car gave me a peace of mind too, knowing that my instructor could intervene if dangerous situations arose.

Once I got started I made steady progress, getting a good taste of what driving on the road was actually like, encountering many types of traffic situations along the way. I struggled somewhat at first, given the fact I was driving a different car, so it was simply a matter of getting used to it. After a small number of lessons I reached a standard where I could drive along a road using the car controls where there was little or no traffic without too many problems.

However, waiting to emerge at roundabouts and junctions caused me more problems, except when it was obvious there were no other vehicles near or within sight of me if I had a view of a long and straight road to the left and the right. There may have been vehicles approaching but still at a safe enough distance for me to pull out into the road. Junctions near bends in the road I found were the worst for me, since you could pull out at the same time a vehicle pops into view from around the bend, forcing them to slow down. I read somewhere that you shouldn’t pull out into the new road where other drivers would have to slow down for you . It was situations like this that would make me hesitant, leading me to take a more, and sometimes more cautious approach to driving.

And of course, being overly obsessed with perfection and safety added to any uncertainties I had about safe gaps in the traffic. My concerns here were about hindering the flow of traffic already there, or causing another driver to take evasive action if I accidentally misjudged a gap. I saw myself being too focused on wanting that ‘perfect gap’ between vehicles on the road. I was also seen to be one of those who could be too over critical of themselves and easily get frustrated if they failed to achieve what they would call perfection, and ask questions such as, “What if I did this/that?”, thus getting themselves into failure states of mind. 

My instructor recognised these things and stressed to me the importance of focusing on safe driving and less on perfection because safe driving in general is what the examiners look for. This, I believed, improved my concentration more on the safety aspect, giving me a more positive outlook on things, also helped by the fact that I knew that even the experts at things will make errors.  After this I had newly found confidence in my ability to tackle junctions, roundabouts, lane changing and to be bold in any decisions made to go. This all came at a time when my instructor advised me I was ready to take the driving test. If you realise you've made a mistake, just forget that it ever happened since it's impossible to turn back the clock and rectify it, especially if nobody came to any harm.

Going back to being too critical of myself, especially when people are still telling me what to do gives me the impression that I still need some degree of supervision when, in actual fact they’re only giving you tips. Driving instructors give you tips right up until the seconds before your test, because they’re so used to doing this day in, day out, which  gave me even more confidence. During testing instances, I found it could be much easier to give up. However I forced myself to keep going, since I’d already invested plenty of time in lessons, private practise and money in an effort to join many other road users already out there.

My driving test


I remember the day of my driving test as being a bright and sunny one, resembling a day during a hot summer heatwave, which, in hindsight made the job of driving easier, since wet roads in the rain would make things more tricky in terms of increasing overall stopping distances, adding to the fact that one may have to make use of windscreen wipers too. To me that would have been hardly a chore since I had experience of using them when practising either side of driving lessons, even at night during the winter months. Every car has a different layout and it is simply a matter of someone showing you these things. This is made easier by having a symbol on the appropriate buttons resembling water spraying out.

Accept that you may be nervous in a test situation. Believe it or not, nerves can, in fact, be your body's natural way of preparing you for a challenge. It also helps to be aware of people you know or close to you who may have failed it at the first attempt themselves and that the world won't end if you do likewise. Prior to the test I had my usual one hour lesson and drove in a manner that would have been worthy of a pass. My instructor advised me to try and be relaxed and try and have a repeat of the lesson.

During the early stages of the test I arrived at a junction with a pedestrian crossing to the left of the junction. I happened to notice a man about to cross there and decided to wait at the junction till the man had crossed before proceeding. My examiner pointed out to me that I should have ideally made the turn into the road and waited just before the crossing to take advantage of the lights, but I decided just to 'play it safe'. Immediately I thought I might have failed, since I got the impression he’d assisted me. But I knew I had an important job ahead and just decided to put that to the back of my mind and drive like I normally did of late. Thinking back to that, it can be so easy to dwell on things like that, lose focus and do something undesirable. Fortunately the rest of the test progressed as I'd hoped without any major incident and that, for me, was a good sign that stood me in good stead.

I felt lucky in a way because I happened to be taken down roads and through places I was familiar with. This made things slightly easier for me since I would be well accustomed to the typical traffic conditions and road layouts around those areas, briefly glancing into any car parks I’d driven around whenever I had the chance during my early driving days. If you've practised plenty without any major problems in unfamiliar territory during your practise sessions and lessons then you should have enough confidence in tackling any new issues you may encounter during the test itself. Just make sure you get enough exposure to as many different traffic and road situations as possible. Compared to my instructor's car, our family car at the time(1999 - 2000) was an estate car without power steering and, when I look back on it, it was like doing my practise in a small van either side of lessons.

At the end of the test, thinking back to the time when the examiner spoke, it turned out I hadn't done anything wrong. When I was told I had passed the test it was as if a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I wore the same clothes on purpose that I’d worn back on one day learning in a car park, and compared it with how times had changed since. As well as being filled with delight and elation, I felt a great sense of relief as it meant one less awkward hurdle to get over in my life. But for me, this has to be one of, if not the biggest of them all so far.


As you'll have probably read, learning to drive can be particularly difficult if you're on the autism spectrum. People who are on the autistic spectrum can, and have been known to learn to drive successfully. Some of you on the spectrum may, of course, need more time.  But that's not to say you might learn and pick it up very quickly. However, there is no definite way to predict how long it may take you to get to test standard and pass.  

My driving test is something I still look back on as one of the best days of my life. After passing the test I looked forward to challenging myself with more advanced driving situations, such as on motorways and driving long distances. Passing your driving can be a time you look back on with the feeling of a great sense of achievement.  In addition to my fear of speed in my early years, another reason why I look upon it as a particularly significant milestone for me is linked to the fact that driving no doubt requires you to have 100% concentration all the time you're on the move as a driver. 

Concentration was often viewed as one of my weak points, particularly in my younger years at school, when letting my mind wander off from the job in hand was a more regular occurrence. I saw this as being relevant with driving, because obviously a lack of concentration here would, no doubt, be a great hindrance here and thus compromise yours, and other road users' safety. Ironically, I’d never thought of this when I imagined myself behind the wheel back then. Of course, I was too young at that time to know and understand what was going on with me.

There are driving schools which specialise in teaching autistic students. Having said that, I don't think my instructor ever knew I was on the autistic spectrum, nor did they specialise in teaching autistic students.

Check out these stories in the links below.

Purple Ella

Julia's story

Asperger's from the inside

Yo Samdy Sam


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