Learning to Drive with Neurodevelopmental Differences

Can adolescents and young adults with neurodevelopmental differences learn to drive safely? Yes, and the number of adolescents and young adults driving with neurodevelopmental differences is growing. According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), one-third of autistic individuals without intellectual disability obtain their driver's license by age 21, increasing their mobility as they transition to adulthood. 

Getting licensed is an exciting milestone, but parents of adolescents and young adults with neurodevelopmental differences may approach this time with fear as well. Many services received as children are no longer available, and the thought of teaching their child to drive may be overwhelming.

Driving Safety Considerations

Autistic adolescents and young adults, as well as those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other neurodevelopmental differences, may have characteristics that place them at risk for unsafe driving behaviors, like inattention or getting lost in the details of the road. On the other hand, they may also have characteristics that promote safer driving behavior, such as a vigilance to follow driving laws. A study conducted by CHOP researchers found that crash risk for young autistic drivers is similar to other young drivers but they are much less likely to have their license suspended or receive a traffic violation.  

Experts at CHOP recommend that families answer the following questions before their adolescent or young adult with neurodevelopmental differences begins the learning-to-drive process:

  • Do you feel your child consistently demonstrates good judgment and maturity at school, around peers, and at home?
  • Is your child receptive to constructive criticism and instruction?
  • Does your child demonstrate rules of the road knowledge and other skills taught in driver education classes? If not, does your child need specialized instruction or a driving assessment?
  • Is your child agreeable to practicing driving with a skilled adult prior to driving independently? If so, is there an adult willing and able to serve in this important role?
  • Are there any medical or behavioral conditions (such as untreated seizures) that may prevent your child from driving safely?
  • Are there medical interventions that may be needed to ensure safe driving behaviors?

If your child is ready to begin driver's ed and parent-supervised practice, CHOP experts recommend that families:

  • Add goals about driving to the child’s individualized education plan (IEP) and follow up with school personnel.
  • Seek the advice of a certified driving rehabilitation specialist or occupational therapist who has training in working with individuals with neurodevelopmental differences.
  • Early in adolescence, begin preparing for adulthood by identifying and promoting the acquisition of independent life skills in diverse domains, including: personal hygiene, health, food preparation, housekeeping, and transportation.
  • Consider treatment for ADHD symptoms, including impulsivity and inattention, if needed.  
  • Provide plenty of parent-supervised driving instruction in partnership with professional driving instruction. The TeenDrivingPlan Practice Guide offers evidence-based instruction in six driving environments, at night, and in inclement weather. The online resource includes 54 short videos and accompanying instruction, as well as tips on creating the right learning environment. 

Other Options to Stay Mobile

For those adolescents and young adults with neurodevelopmental differences who are not ready or unable to drive, there are other ways to stay mobile when transitioning to adulthood:

  • Practice how to take public transit
  • Use taxis or ridesharing services
  • Carpool with classmates or coworkers who drive

Learn more about driving with ADHD.

Learn more about autism and driving.

More Helpful Information 

Watch this video to learn about driving and autism research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: