Autism and Learning to Drive

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Stephen McHugh (00:21):
Hi there, and welcome to episode 11 of the Stephen's Evolution podcast. I'm Stephen McHugh, your host, and here is where I talk about life with Asperger's, a form of autism. In this episode, I'm going to talk about Asperger's and learning to drive and how I learned to do it myself. Even when I was young, and despite my difficulties, I always envisaged myself driving a car, I developed a fascination with fast cars and speedometers. In addition, I had no idea that my condition would affect me with driving, especially regarding issues with concentration, since I had the tendency to be in my own world at times.

Stephen McHugh (01:18):
I did develop a fear of speed too. My fear of speed was an important hurdle for me to face and get over. Anyway, let's fast forward to the time when I decided to learn to drive. At first, I'd be taken out in the family car to quiet car parks in order to get used to the controls. I knew how to use the controls of a car. It would just simply be a matter of putting it into practice over time. At first, when steering, I had the tendency to cross my hands over. I was advised not to do this as it may cause loss of control of the car.

Stephen McHugh (02:09):
As I've already mentioned, I had a fear of speed As a youngster, I knew that driving too fast would be a dangerous thing to do when driving. So the logical thing for me here would be to drive slower. However, I learned a new thing that driving too slowly can create dangers of its own. That is by causing traffic to accumulate behind you. Concentration wasn't an issue for me as that had already improved over time. There were other challenges I would face when learning to drive. Another one would be reading and understanding the language of the rules of the road and applying them to different traffic situations.

Stephen McHugh (03:05):
Another one I'd like to mention was when I would emerge from roundabouts and junctions and knowing when to give way to traffic. The trouble I had here was trying to identify the perfect gap. This was an example of one way I'd approach driving in a more cautious manner.

Stephen McHugh (03:33):
I spent some time learning in the family car, in quiet small car parks until I felt confident enough about using the controls of the car to try and help me overcome my fear of speed. It was decided for me to go to a larger car park in order to get me to drive up to speeds close to that on a public road.

Stephen McHugh (04:00):
Once and once I felt confident enough, I got over my fear of speed. That's when I decided to look into having driving lessons with an instructor. I did take lessons with a local instructor having been recommended them by a friend. I was told, I was told by my friend at the time that they wouldn't be pushy, but they'd still have enough enthusiasm about them to keep me motivated.

Stephen McHugh (04:37):
Being out with an instructor gave me a useful and interesting insight into driving on public roads, making steady progress at the same time. Over time, it helped me to understand that side mirrors were used when changing lanes, and also the use of a blind spot, which you would check before moving into a different lane. These were examples of things I would find easy to understand. My instructor would always guide me in what to do in every traffic situation. This reassured me along with the fact that they had a good pass rate. My instructor could also allow for short breaks if a situation arose where you were feeling overwhelmed about a certain situation.

Stephen McHugh (05:41): 
There were occasions when they stopped me by the side of the road to explain something that I did wrong and how I could do it better next time. When I applied for my driving test after being advised that I was ready, I was told not to focus too much on perfection, but rather more on driving safely.

Stephen McHugh (06:09):
I do remember on one occasion when I was emerging from a slower road to a faster road. It was here that my instructor used the phrase 'burn rubber'. Now, as you can imagine, those of us with autism can have literal, can have literal interpretations of such language and be confused by what it means. Fortunately for me, at the time when I was learning to drive, there had been enough of an improvement in me to understand that bone rubber meant to get up to speed quickly. So this is one thing that driving instructors should be mindful of, if encountering autistic students.

Stephen McHugh (07:05):
And of course, being in a dual controlled car gave me some peace of mind as my instructor could intervene, if any potentially dangerous situation arose. Before a learner can apply for the practical driving test, they must take and pass a theory test. For this, I had access to a book which had questions, which you could be asked. In the theory test. I would read it from front to back and test myself until I was confident enough that I knew the answers.

Stephen McHugh (07:51):
To me, a lot of it seemed to be common sense. An example here could be if you were like behind a long lorry that's indicating to turn left. The logical step for me here would be to wait a safe distance behind the lorry, giving a sufficient gap in order to allow it to complete the turn safely. A 'no entry' sign could be easy for me to understand as the white symbol in the red circle would be indicative of a barrier. When it came to learning manoeuvers, one thing I was taught on the reverse around the corner was when the curb disappeared from view in the back window. That's when I would be told to start turning without hitting the curve or being too far out in the road.

Stephen McHugh (08:53):
When it came to doing parallel parking, I was told that when I saw the curb in the bottom left of the back window, that's when I'd start turning back by having a view of where the curb is in the back window. This helped me to know where I was in relation to the curb. When it came to hill starts. I would find these very daunting at first. After a while, I began to realize that all you had to do was have a bit more in terms of revs on the engine in order to get more power and release the handbrake at a time when you could feel the car pulling away.

Stephen McHugh (09:44):
When the day of my driving test arrived, I was helped psychologically by the fact that the weather was warm and sunny. In addition, by coincidence, I was taken down routes that I was very familiar with. Having had plenty of practice down them, having practice outside lessons helped me to become more familiar with many different traffic situations, which helped to increase my confidence for whatever route I may have been taken down.

Stephen McHugh (10:24): 
With regards to the weather conditions, I had plenty of practice driving in the dark and wet rainy conditions, which proved useful too, as it got me familiar with using the windscreen wipers. Looking back during the start of the test as I was moving off, I realised I hadn't locked the door of the car and so locked it as I was moving off.

Stephen McHugh (10:53): 
A short way on when turning into a busy road, there was a pedestrian waiting to cross. I waited at the junction for the pedestrian to cross. When the examiner had advised me that I could have perhaps turned into the road to take advantage of the lights, here, it could have been easy for me to dwell on this and get myself into a mess. However, I kept telling myself that I had an important job to do, which was to concentrate on driving the rest of the way safely, which I did do.

Stephen McHugh (11:36):
Passing the driving test I found can give you a new sense of freedom. One example, being being less dependent on public transport. Despite passing my driving test, I was happy to continue using public transport for the most part. So yes, psychologically I felt a new sense of personal freedom here. In the times following my success at the driving test, I challenged myself to motorway driving and driving between cities.

Stephen McHugh (12:18):
Nowadays, whenever I encounter difficult situations, I often think back to the times when I learned to drive successfully, which gives me confidence going forward. The evidence is clearly out there that those of us with autism can successfully learn to drive.

Stephen McHugh (12:43):
I'd like to see driving instructors have perhaps access to courses in future about how to handle autistic students when it comes to learning to drive. As those of us with autism can have certain challenges in this way, driving instructors could become more autism friendly. Having said that, each and every case will be unique, and that's all there is for this episode. If it's resonated with you in some way or you found it useful, please give it a rating or a review on Apple, Spotify, Podchaser, or Podcast Addict. You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram, and my email on my website at its footer.

Stephen McHugh (13:43):
I'm going to be taking a month long break from podcasting. During this time, I plan to reassess my strategies along with reorganising my home. Plus, there's also a relative's wedding to plan for.

Stephen McHugh (14:06): 
I have already done episodes based on my education signs of Asperger's and things that teachers should be aware of. So if you've not already done so or if you want to listen to them again, you can do so. You can find a link to my podcast episodes on my website,

Stephen McHugh (14:32): I plan to return to podcasting on Tuesday, the 25th of July. In between now and then, I plan to use some of the time to think up new ideas for new episodes. So stay tuned for more news of that on Twitter over the coming weeks. In the meantime, take care. Enjoy yourselves and stay safe.

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