How does having Asperger Syndrome affect driving? As it takes me at least half an hour to drive to and from work every day, driving is a significant part of my weekday routine (and weekends if I have anywhere to be). I don’t tend to experience sensory overload while driving, as some people with Asperger’s or autism do, but the condition certainly has an effect. First, I prefer having a degree of predictability in most situations, but of course driving is unpredictable: even if you’re using a route that you know very well, you can’t predict what other drivers you will encounter or how they will behave, and unforeseen obstacles like temporary traffic lights may pop up one day without warning. Second, my thinking is very detail-oriented, so I can become focussed on details before and during a journey (e.g. moving into the correct lanes at the correct time), and on obeying the rules of the road. The number of details to consider can make me feel nervous if I’m driving somewhere I’ve never been before.
The experience of driving varies greatly for different people on the autism spectrum, but a good instructor will take you through the controls and basic concepts gradually in the first few lessons, so you can get an idea of how you will take to it. I passed my driving test on the second attempt; however, as I mentioned in my previous Asperger’s post, I ended up having a stressful time on my first solo drive, when unexpected roadworks forced me to make a detour. Perhaps this left an impression, as I often felt nervous about driving in the years that followed; it could take time to work myself up to go out driving, and minor errors or surprise obstacles would make me anxious. This may also have been because I didn’t need to drive every day, so I wasn’t spending enough time doing it to regain confidence. Eventually, I sold my car and spent several years relying on public transport.
Then I got a new job that was significantly further away than my old one, and impractical to get to by bus or train. Suddenly I had a real reason to get a new car and start driving again. With so much time having passed since I had last driven, I took a couple of refresher driving lessons, which proved to be a real confidence booster; I was surprised how quickly the controls came back to me, and that I felt much more at ease than I had done the last time I drove. Maybe it was because I was able to approach it from a fresh standpoint after so many years, or maybe I had just grown up a bit.
Having to drive regularly, turning it into a routine, has certainly contributed to the increase in confidence I’ve experienced. As time passes, you experience new situations which can potentially be worrying at first, but I log them and then know what to do in the future without having to get stressed about it. I also make sure I know as much as possible about the conditions before going on a journey, such as by checking a traffic website. If I’m going somewhere I haven’t before, I spend some time studying the route: the street view of Google Maps is very useful for this, allowing me to note landmarks and the right lanes when changing direction. Keeping things simple by reducing the journey down to the most important landmarks, or a road or junction number, helps me keep things clear in my head; it also helps to write the different steps of the journey down (though of course I never look at the notes while driving!) If it’s a long journey, I sometimes bring a satnav for extra reassurance.
It’s now almost two years since I started driving regularly again. Not only am I much less anxious than I once was, I actually enjoy it. I’ve become able to embrace the freedom that having a car offers, and go on journeys that would have made me too uncomfortable during my first driving phase, an hour or more’s drive from home. I’ve gained enough confidence to use the motorway, which I often find less stressful than the A-road, which is more likely to turn up encumbrances like tractors and roadworks. All in all, I feel very proud of how I’ve come along as a driver.