There’s been a little bit of a situation going on in the UK recently, though it seems that by now it has mostly resolved itself. A few weeks ago, the DVLA (a UK governmental organization that issues driver’s licenses) announced that it was now requiring autistic people who had a driver’s license to receive permission from a physician to continue driving and also self-disclose their autism to the DVLA so that they could be investigated to determine whether or not they could keep their license.
Cue massive amounts of justifiable outrage from the UK and international autistic communities. This policy effects tens-of-thousands, if not hundreds-of-thousands, of autistic people. Yes, there really are that many autistic drivers in the UK. Many of us have speculated that perhaps the DVLA assumed that very few autistic people would have a driver’s license, and so this little requirement wouldn’t be that big of a deal. If this was an assumption that was made it would be yet another case of people seriously underestimating the capabilities of autistic people. I can’t imagine that it wasn’t an assumption that was made though, as I don’t see how the DVLA thought it could launch practical investigations into the driving habits of thousands upon thousands of people.
Criticism was also leveled on the basis that this was flat-out discrimination against autistic people, as autistic people had to take and pass all the same tests as everyone else to get their license yet autistics are the only ones subject to additional screening on whether or not they’re allowed to drive. Plus, such a program is ridiculously unnecessary because autism is present from birth. Every autistic person with a driver’s license was autistic at the time they took their driving test, so if autism was affecting their ability to drive this would have been seen in their first driving test. The DVLA also categorized autism as a mental health condition, meaning the pages of questionnaires people were filling out after self-disclosing had absolutely nothing to do with autism (because they were filling out the mental health forms and autism is not a mental health condition). Finally, many worried that this was only serving as a back-door way to create a registry of autistic people that may later be abused. Or, that this would only serve to further deny autistic people necessary services (either as “Well this says you can drive, so obviously you don’t need these supports and accommodations,” or “If you need these supports you obviously shouldn’t be driving.”).
Luckily, I get to write about all of this in the past tense, as a few days ago the DVLA released an amendment to this new policy stating that it was requiring autistic people to self-disclose only if their autism negatively impacted their ability to drive. (Some say this was always the policy and it just wasn’t communicated clearly, others are calling this a new development. I’m not sure which is which, but I get the feeling it really is a change from the original policy, so I’ll go with it as that). This is still foolish, as again, autism is present from birth, you don’t develop it later in life, so autistic people with a license were autistic at the time they took their test. If autism negatively impacted their ability to drive, it would’ve been seen on the test.
This whole situation was unclear and full of grey area, which only made things worse because autistic people need things to be clear and very distinctly black and white. There’s more I could say about this, and this post was originally going to be entirely about this, but I don’t feel like I need to say anything more about this specific incident given that the situation seems to be alright for now.
I would, however, like to say a few things concerning the topic of autism and driving.
This whole situation came about as the result of the assumption or misconception that autistic people could pose some sort hazard on the road if they were driving. Indeed, if you put into Google “Can autistic people” one of the popular search recommendations is “Can autistic people drive?” In a very broad sense, the answer is clearly “yes,” as there are lots of autistic people who drive. I’m going to make an assumption of my own and say that I think most autistic people are capable of driving. But the story is more complex than this.
Given that autism exists on a three-dimensional spectrum, you can’t ask “can autistic people XYZ?” and expect to get an accurate answer that applies to all autistic people. The autistic population is as diverse in skills, talents, abilities (and disabilities) as the neurotypical population, so it’s impossible to answer such a broad question with a single answer. Yes, there are autistic people that can drive, but there are also autistic people who can’t drive. Reasons an autistic person may not be able to drive include difficulty processing the necessary sensory input necessary for driving, difficulty making split-second decisions, co-occurring conditions like epilepsy, difficulty with motor coordination, slow reaction time, high anxiety when driving, or any other large number of things (in my personal experience, crippling anxiety caused by driving seems to be the most common cause of autistic people being unable to drive rather than some physical thing). However, just because some autistic people have trouble with these things does not mean that all autistic people have the same amount of trouble with these things. There is no reason to think that an autistic person who has a driver’s license is any more dangerous of a driver than anybody else with a driver’s license. In fact, the opposite may be true. There is research to suggest that autistic driver’s are more safe than non-autistic drivers.
A paper titled Factors Associated With Driving in Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorders found that autistic teens with a driver’s license received half as many tickets and were in half as many accidents as their non-autistic peers. So, if this paper is anything to go off of, autistic drivers are twice as safe as non-autistic drivers.
There are a number of explanations as to why this could be. Remember that autism affects essentially every facet of a person’s life, but this doesn’t mean it’s in a negative way. Generally, autistic people are less likely to be risk-takers. We usually feel more comfortable playing it safe, and this would of course lead to less potentially dangerous risk-taking on the road. Autistic people are also generally very non-confrontational, which means we’re less likely to be aggressive drivers. We’re also very rule-driven, and so are more likely to strictly obey traffic laws like the speed limit, coming to a complete stop at stop signs, and using turn signals. Finally, as someone pointed out on Twitter, autistic people aren’t likely to engage in something unless we feel like we’ve mastered it. So, if an autistic person is confidently behind the wheel, chances are that’s because they really are a very good driver.
All of this is important to know, because it needs to be understood that there is no good reason to restrict autistic people from a driver’s license. As far as I know, there isn’t anywhere that discriminates against autism when getting a license, but the recent move by the DVLA shows that people are more than willing to attempt to discriminate against autistic people when it comes to driving.
This is an important topic, because it’s important for many autistic people that they can drive. Autistic people are already seriously unemployed or underemployed. A car allows people (not just autistic people) the opportunity to expand their job opportunities. Thus, it would be doing a massive disservice to autistic people to prevent them in any way from driving, as this would only serve to make an already serious problem worse. Especially given that there is absolutely zero reason that an autistic person with a driver’s license would be any worse off on the road.