Adulting with Autism: Driving

Categories: Life Skills

Driving is a necessity nowadays. And typically, nearly every teenager eagerly waits to get their hands behind the wheel. Although that wasn’t me, I was perfectly fine with my mom being my Uber. Although my mom knew that eventually I would need to drive myself around, especially when I got a job. So I was placed in driver’s ed and it made me feel fairly confident in my ability to drive, assuming that everybody followed the laws and guidelines for driving. Little did I know that Albuquerque, New Mexico is well known for its crazy drivers. So once I got my license and hit the streets, I was absolutely terrified. I wanted to avoid driving at all costs. Luckily, I had never been in a car accident but I did have a few good scares. Additionally, I had never been pulled over by the police but I was terrified at the thought of it so I would ask my mom what to do in the situation. If perhaps I had been pulled over for speeding and the officer were to confront me asking me if I knew that I was speeding then I should respond with, “No.” Although I didn’t feel great about that, what if I did know that I was purposely speeding? Wouldn’t that be lying to an officer? My mom tried to explain that the officer wouldn’t be so appreciative of my straightforwardness because they might take it offensively as if I was trying to be a smart alec. Either way, I figured I shouldn’t be speeding in the first place so I could avoid the situation altogether. 

Sure enough, I eventually did have an encounter with a police officer on the road. Around this time, my car began to die randomly on the road. I was already under enough stress from driving that I really didn’t need this to escalate the situation. When I get behind that wheel and get on the road my heart begins to pace faster. I get overly tense when I see another car on the road. My mind is heading into overdrive trying to multi-task on staying between the lines, staying under the speed limit, and not forgetting where to make the next turn. So forget putting on music or rolling the windows down because I’m already overstimulated. 

On this occasion, I was heading home after some last-minute shopping with my little brother. The street lights were lit and dusk was settling in and without hesitation, I begin my drive home. Though not long after my car wouldn’t accelerate at all. The cars behind me started to grow impatient and honk, but eventually, they would just switch lanes and continue on. I didn’t worry too much because my car had been doing this before and soon enough it would start running again. Then the blue and red lights appeared in my rearview mirror. My heart started to race and my little brother grew a bit concerned. I realized I had to keep calm so he wouldn’t panic. So I reassured him that things would be fine and waited for the officer to approach my car. I rolled down my window and to my surprise he asked in a concerned tone if everything was ok. His polite and soft-spoken words helped me calm down enough to reply back to him and explain the situation. He noticed my little brother in the back and assumed that he was my son (since we have a 10-year age gap between us). So he said, “Alright ma’am you and your son can carry on then.” Before replying with thank you there was a second of hesitation because I thought about correcting the officer and telling him that the child is my brother, not my son. Although I remembered what my mom said about correcting officers so I held back my tongue, said thank you, and sure enough my car got started again and took us home. Whenever I think back on that situation I’m very thankful for that compassionate officer. I could imagine a million different ways that scenario could have gone terriblly. Luckily, since that experience I have learned more ways to make driving less stressful and extra tools that could help me out if I ever find myself in a similar situation.

In New Mexico, we have a special autism awareness license plate. You don’t necessarily have to be diagnosed with autism to get one of these plates. It could be a child that rides in the car, the driver, or simply a supporter. This is often a first visual clue to the first responder that they may encounter someone on the spectrum. Secondly, I highly recommend an Autism sticker for drivers. It directly informs someone that they are on the spectrum and can be easily noticed and placed on the driver’s window. Additionally, autism alert or id cards are extremely useful to any first responder that you may come across. Since the card carries more important information about the person and who they should contact. Lastly, I recommend taking the time to learn some ways to make driving less stressful and to learn your limits. I personally enjoy having windows up and putting on a very happy and upbeat playlist on my phone. I also like having the AC on and wearing my sunglasses while driving. Along with knowing what makes you comfortable, try to be aware of what makes you uncomfortable when driving. For me personally, I can’t drive with babies who may get fussy and cry or with small children that are frequently asking for my attention. Also, I don’t really like having deep personal conversations while driving.

When I was beginning to learn how to drive, I felt calmer when I had my dog riding with me. Cupcake is not a trained service dog, but I do consider her my emotional support animal. Despite being a husky, she is rather calm when in the passenger seat beside me. She enjoys it when I pet her, which allows me to ease off some stress by stroking her soft fur. Cupcake keeps a cute smile on her face and occasionally gives me a kiss to reassure me that everything is okay. 

My number one tip for driving is to advocate for yourself when you are able. Since there is no such thing as someone who “looks autistic,” we should make sure that the police officer or first aid person we are interacting with are aware of our capabilities and accommodations. It is a very important step that could provide a lot of clarity and even prevent unnecessary trouble. 

Abigail Rivera
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