Friday 18 May 2018

Driving Whilst Autistic

I have had some interesting conversations around autism and driving, this week.  It led me to look at some research into this.  It is fair to say that I was, er, surprised by my findings.

Firstly, almost without exception, the 'test subjects' in the research were young men of between 16 and 25.  

Almost no female or other genders.  Thus cutting out almost half of the autistic population from the research.

Almost no adults in their late 20s, or indeed their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or older.  In other words, during all the years when people normally drive, or may learn to drive when older.

Some of the researchers decided it was too much bother to ask the actual autistic young adult drivers, so they asked their parents to fill out the questions instead, I kid you not. 

Other researchers decided that it was a really good plan to test autistic people by putting them in front of three huge flickering screens in a mock-up of a driving position, and do a computerised simulation.  This would be the same as their actual driving skills in natural light on a real road, in a real car, they mused, not knowing anything about autism it seems.

Yet more researchers decided that autistic people were 'bad' because they paid equal attention to objects and people in these computer simulations.  Whereas the 'correct' response was to pay attention to people more than objects, when driving.  Apparently they failed to ask the autistic people why they paid attention in such a way.  After all, if you can just portray us as 'bad', job done?  I might point out that a computer simulation of a person is not the same as a real person, for example.

And some of the researchers seemingly ignored recent studies showing that, on the road, in a real car, autistic people were as good or better than the non-autistic ones.  More careful, better understanding of rules, etc.

Talking with autistic drivers who have driven for decades safely and without problems, several have told me that one of the biggest obstacles in learning to drive was the appallingly bad non-autistic instructors.  They simply wouldn't explain things in a clear way, and assumed that the autistic person could interpret and 'fill in the gaps'.  Then, if the autistic person got it wrong, "Well, it's their autism, innit".

Is it?

Like every other sort of person, some autistic people can't drive.  Some autistic people attempt to pass a test and don't.  A few autistic people are not good drivers.  Some autistic people are average drivers.  Some autistic people are excellent drivers.

Just like everyone else, if given the same chance to learn the skills, in fact.

Each autistic driver has to pass a competence test.  It's called the Driving Test.  Same as everyone else.   

Turning to the DVLA, the organisation in the UK who handle driving licenses for people, their website (paraphrased) says "if" someone's autism means they shouldn't drive because it's not safe, then, er, they shouldn't drive.  A strange statement, whichever way we look at it.  

One doesn't become autistic after passing a test.  One is born autistic, and is autistic for life.  So someone who is deemed competent by an examiner is indeed as competent to drive as everyone else who passes their test.    In fact, many autistic drivers show great strengths such as diligence, honesty, carefulness, fairness and accuracy, as well as often having a really good knowledge of cars/maps/road signs etc.  I've had the honour of driving with so many fantastic, very safe autistic drivers, including those within our own family, and observing their skills over decades.  Researchers should try that instead of getting out a computer.

I'd quite like our researchers to do some quality research into autism and driving, because this is important stuff.  Autistic people are rarely able to access public transport in any good way, and for many, the car is freedom, opportunity, a social life, and (vitally) a way to get to work and back.  What we need is really good research that looks at the whole range of autistic people, not just 5% of us.  Research that looks at fair testing of skills, looks at how we can improve the process, ensures that we have more instructors with autism knowledge, and produces better ways to enable people to learn accurate, safe skills.

Analysing a group of teenage lads playing on a computer does not in any way represent a driving research project worthy of the name.    

The picture at the top is a green open top racing car, parked in a warehouse.