Maria Schultheis, associate professor of psychology, and Brian Daly, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences, conducted a pilot study and co-authored a subsequent article titled “Driving Behaviors in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” published in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
The study, which was conducted over a year, concluded that adults with self-reported autism spectrum disorders earned their driver’s license on average two years later, usually drove less frequently, and were much more likely to place voluntary restrictions on their driving behavior, such as avoiding driving at night, on the highway and in heavy traffic, due to poor perceptions of driving ability and difficulties with driving.
While there was some research in the past about the driving experiences of individuals with ASD, the studies usually focused on new drivers and teenagers and relied on surveys and evaluations from the parents of the teenagers. This is the first study to ask adult drivers diagnosed with ASD to describe their driving experiences.
Daly and Schultheis collaborated on the study to better understand ASD and its relationship to driving, but for two distinct reasons.
Schultheis is a clinical neuropsychologist whose research predominantly focuses on driving capacity after neurological compromise, such as brain injury, dementia and multiple sclerosis, in order to assess how changes in the brain affect one’s capacity to drive. This new research studies driving capacity from the perspective of individuals diagnosed with ASD and is one more piece of the puzzle of how neurology can affect driving capacity.
Daly is a pediatric psychologist and collaborated on the study to get a first-hand account of the experiences of drivers diagnosed with ASD in order to understand the potential challenges of driving for the rising number of people diagnosed with ASD and to help make them more independent and autonomous, thus improving their quality of life.
“The ability to drive is so central to quality of life for people,” Daly wrote in an email. “For example, driving can be a critical factor for work, it is related to social networks and for being an active member in the community. So, driving is related to many important facets of life.”
The study was conducted online using a slightly modified version of the Driving Behavior Questionnaire, which assesses driving habits and solicits self-appraisal of driving ability. The study compared the responses of 78 adults diagnosed with ASD to those of 94 adults not diagnosed with ASD, who were the control group.
The researchers found that drivers diagnosed with ASD were more likely to report themselves as “poor drivers” and commit more mistakes compared to the control group. However, the results indicate that these reports did not correlate with self-reported driving behavior in the DBQ, which suggests that individuals diagnosed with ASD may have an inaccurate perception of their driving ability.
Schultheis and Daly speculate that the poor self-image may be caused by “negative affect,” as depression is more prevalent among individuals diagnosed with ASD. Additionally, individuals diagnosed with ASD with limited social interaction may lack a reference group of adults to compare their driving abilities to.
Adult drivers diagnosed with ASD were more likely to have reported committing a violation in the past two years compared to the control group. The nature of the violations included running a red light or stop sign, reckless driving, speeding tickets and completing an illegal turn. However, the number of reported involvements in traffic accidents between the groups were not significantly different.
Even though the results provided by the study seem conclusive, one should not be quick to accept the findings. According to Schultheis, there are several limitations to the procedure of the study that need to be taken into account before effectively concluding that drivers diagnosed with ASD have lower driving ability than their counterparts not diagnosed with ASD.
The study relies on self-reporting and past research on driving has indicated that drivers not diagnosed with ASD usually have a positive bias toward their driving perception and are less likely to report mistakes, whereas drivers diagnosed with ASD, in this study at least, may have been more open, precise and descriptive about their errors.
“No one wants to be seen as a bad driver or claim they make a lot of driving errors,” Schultheis said. “However, individuals with ASD have a tendency to strictly follow rules and one of the possibilities is that ASD driverswere over-reporting or reporting more errors and difficulties than you would typically expect because they were trying to be more accurate and descriptive and trying not to break the rules of the survey, which asks for honesty.”
Another limitation of the study is its incapability to pinpoint the specific reason drivers diagnosed with ASD apparently have more difficulty. Autism spectrum disorders are often associated with difficulties in motor coordination, attention modulation, motion perception and reaction time. If the findings of the study were taken at face value, then individuals diagnosed with ASD would indeed have a lower driving ability. However, the study did not objectively determine which of these difficulties are responsible for the lower driving performance or if the reason is more global.
The DBQ survey was a preliminary study that relied on self-reporting to assess if drivers diagnosed with ASD have higher difficulty than drivers not diagnosed with ASD. It provided evidence that further research is needed in this area. The next phase of the study will use a driving simulator to objectively pinpoint the reason for the apparently increased difficulty for drivers diagnosed with ASD.
The next study will be more comprehensive and take a more systematic approach, by measuring numerous variables, a few of which are reaction time, visual processing, duration at a stop sign and lane positioning of both drivers diagnosed and not diagnosed with ASD. The results of each variable will then be compared to more accurately determine the cause of apparent poor driving ability in drivers diagnosed with ASD.
The ultimate goal of both the preliminary study and the next phase is to improve existing driver’s education services to better serve individuals diagnosed with ASD and assess the best way to introduce them to and keep them on the road safely.