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Temple Grandin Answers Your Questions About Autism

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Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the greatest autism advocates of our time. A six-time author with a Ph.D. in animal studies, Grandin is a living example of the potential of the autism community.

We asked you, our autism community, what you would ask Dr. Grandin if given the chance. We took questions from autistic individuals and their parents, and asked Dr. Grandin her thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.

The Mighty Readers: What is your advice for motivating a child with autism who is not motivated?

Temple Grandin: Well, I’m going to assume that this is not a 3-year-old. For a 3-year old I can give you a standard answer, and that’s lot of early intervention. Now I don’t know anything about this child, so I’m just going to make up a child… Let’s say a fourth-grade fully verbal child. Motivate him through his fixations. If he likes trains, use that motivation – that interest in trains – to motivate mathematics, motivate reading. Play games involving trains, read about the history of railroads. Make an associative link back into his fixations and then keep broadening it out.

When I was in fourth grade, I would draw the same horse head over and over again. I was encouraged to draw lots of different things. But take their fixation and broaden it. Transportation is a real common fixation – trains, cars and airplanes – because of the motion. A lot of these kids really like the motion.

If you have a 2-year old that’s not talking, [first check if they’re] deaf, and [then] start early educational intervention – 20 hours a week. You’ve got to teach them words. And, the other thing you’ve got to teach these kids [is] how to take turns. That was taught to me with board games. They’ve got to learn how to wait and take their turn.

How can you help a child with autism cope with their fears?

TG: Well, I had a lot of anxiety issues. One of the things you can do is give them some choices. When I was 15, I was afraid to go to my aunt’s ranch, so my mother gave me a choice. I could go for a week or I could go all summer. Not going was not going to be one of the choices. Give the child some choices, but becoming a recluse in your room is not one of the choices. That’s one place that my family, my school, just drew a line, and that was just not allowed. You can say, “You can have a choice – you can do boy scouts or you can do robotics.” Give the child some choices, but you’re going to have to get out and do some things.

As an adult, how do you deal with sensory input? Has it changed over time?

TG: Yes, it’s gotten better over time. I still have problems with touch sensitivity. I mean, they seem to be cheapening up the clothes and making the cotton more rough. You know finding pants that don’t itch is getting to be more and more of a big chore. Sound sensitivity for me has just become a nuisance, but I still have a lot of problems with screening out background noise. I’m functionally deaf in noisy restaurants, and my hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. Sensory issues are extremely variable. Now some people have visual sensitivity problems, other people have touch sensitivity problems. My problems were mainly noise sensitivity, touch sensitivity. One of the areas I think is the number one area for research is how to treat sensory issues. It would be my big top priority, and in order to study these issues they have to be looked at by particular sensitivity problems – sound sensitivity, rough clothing sensitivity, problems with bright lights. If you blob it all together you’re not going to get any decent results.

What advice would you give parents whose children have recently been diagnosed with autism?

TG: Usually in younger children they get diagnosed because they’ve got speech delay. You have got to get into good early intervention, and I’ve got a book that’s very good for that, “The Way I See It.” Lots of short, easy-to-read chapters. There’s another book called “Autism Breakthrough,” if you’ve got to start working with a child now. If you have a kid that’s not talking, that’s 3 years old, don’t wait. Start working with this kid now, teach them turn taking and words. Do not let them zone out all day on electronics, absolutely not. If there is some game on a phone, that phone needs to physically be passed back and forth. These kids have got to learn how to wait and take their turn.

Now an older kid normally is diagnosed because he is getting bullied and having social problems in school and is usually fully verbal. I had friends that shared interests. Get them involved in Boy Scouts and FFA, in robotics, in art, in band, in theater – because with these specialized interests that’s where they are going to have friends. And I do a lot of discussion on that in one of my books, “Thinking in Pictures.”

Is handling fame and celebrity similar to coping with autism?

TG: Well, I figure it’s a responsibility. I’ve got to make sure I’m always on my very, very best behavior. I’ve always got to be on good behavior, no matter how tired I get.

How can parents help their nonverbal child communicate?

TG: Well, let’s say you’ve worked on this kid and he’s not learning to talk, then you need to get a communication device. There are some kids who are nonverbal who can learn to type independently and actually have locked-in syndrome – where there is a good brain hidden in there and they may not talk but they can learn how to type. A really good book to read is Tito Mukhopadhyay’s “How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?” Tito describes a sensory jumbled up world. I consider that book essential reading if you’re working with older children and adults who are nonverbal because you can understand some of the sensory issues these individuals are up against.

What direction do you think awareness should be focused on?

TG: We have different issues. The early intervention, the awareness, I think has gotten a lot better, but I still go to certain parts of the country where the child is getting to first grade without getting any kind of early education. They’re just allowed to zone out on electronics and the TV all day.

I think we need to start, also, focusing on what people with autism can do. The way I got my business started, I showed off a portfolio of my work. In the 1970s when I started in the cattle industry, being a woman was a much bigger issue than being autistic. Being a woman, I had to be five times better than a man. I’ve been horrified over the years on the big mistakes that guys can make on jobs.

How can employers help their employees who are on the spectrum?

TG: There’s a very simple thing that employers can do to help people that have developmental differences. If today, I was hired by Starbucks and I got to tear that coffee machine down, clean it and put it back together again, I would need a pilot’s checklist of the steps to clean it, tear it down and get it reassembled – because I do not have a good working memory. So for a task that involves sequence, I would need a pilot’s checklist.

Also, if they make a social mistake, let’s say they’re working in a retail store and they stand too close to customers, you’ve got to just demonstrate, “This is how you do it. Watch Suzy, how she interacts with customers and then copy that.” It’s like instructing someone how to behave in a foreign country.

How can parents explain the advantages of autism to their children?

TG: Find something they are good at. There are some people with autism that are very good at math or very good at art. My ability in art, when I was a young child, was always greatly encouraged. Build up on the thing the kid is good at.

Are there different kinds of autistic minds?

TG: I talked about this in my book, “The Autistic Brain.” The visual thinkers like me, there are art minds, the mathematical minds, more of the patterned thinkers – kids who are good at math, good at programming, engineering – and then the writer minds. These differences often show up around third or fourth grade.

How can people with autism manage anxiety?

TG: Us visual thinkers, we tend to be really anxious. I do take medication. I take antidepressants. Low doses of antidepressants absolutely saved me, and I discussed that in my book, “Thinking in Pictures.” Even though [the book] is old, that information is still accurate. Read the chapter that’s called “A Believer in Biochemistry.” Some of the worst anxiety problems tend to be in the kids with the art minds, the visual thinkers.

Questions and replies have been edited for length and clarity.

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Why I'm Voting for Hillary Clinton as the Mom of an Autistic Son

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This election is personal.

Like everyone else, I’m concerned about the economy, climate change, ISIS and national security. But what keeps me up nights most is family security. Specifically, the security of my autistic young adult son.

Which candidate will best protect his interests and help him achieve a meaningful place in society?

Not Donald Trump. Whether it’s dismissing vets with PTSD, mocking a Deaf actress or a New York Times reporter with arthrogryposis, vengefully withholding healthcare coverage for his nephew’s disabled infant, or making fun of Senator Harry Reid’s blinding eye injury, Trump treats people with disabilities as a punch line.

My son’s future is nothing to joke about.

It’s clear who will advocate for him. Hillary Clinton’s concern for the rights of the disabled has bracketed her entire career. Her first job out of law school was to go door to door for the Children’s Defense Fund to find out why so many children were missing school. She discovered that schools weren’t accommodating kids with disabilities. The documentation she compiled was pivotal in pushing forward the special education law that eventually became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.), the most important piece of civil rights legislation for children with disabilities ever passed in this country.

The special needs community desperately needs a champion. Services for disabled adults are abysmal. Children like mine exit the school system into a woefully ill-prepared, bureaucratized and difficult-to-navigate adult social service system charged with meeting their needs. My son graduated three years ago. He now attends a Medicaid-funded day program. He is not employed. I’m terrified for his future. I.D.E.A. guaranteed him an education, but after the age of 21, all the mandated educational supports and services vanish. Once that little yellow school bus stops coming to the front door, it’s like falling off a cliff. The system spent 16 years educating him, only to let him languish stuck at home in front of the TV.

He’s not alone. More than 3.5 million Americans are now believed to have an autism spectrum disorder; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimates ASD affects one in 68 American children. The disability community isn’t a special interest group. A recent Rutgers study found that one sixth of the electorate is disabled, and the U.S. Census estimates that nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. Americans with disabilities continue to be left out of the workforce. For those who are employed, too many are in under-stimulating jobs that don’t fully allow them to use their talents.

Clinton has framed this issue not just as one of health care benefits or social services, but as an economic one as well, focusing on full inclusion of disabled people in the economy. She has not only acknowledged the needs of people with disabilities and mental health concerns. She has specific, comprehensive plans and policies to address them. She is committed to fulfilling the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Her Plan to Support Children, Youth, and Adults Living With Autism and Their Families highlights the need for increased research funding, universal screening, diagnosis, treatment services, bullying prevention, improved housing and employment opportunities, and safety and legal protections across the lifespan. Her initiatives seek to integrate people with disabilities into the nation’s economy. This issue, she says, “really goes to the heart of who we are as Americans.”

Her plan includes provisions to provide tax relief to assist families caring for aging relatives, as well as members with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Disability advocates and scientists hail her comprehensive initiative as the most detailed policy document on autism in U.S. presidential election history.

Disability issues were front and center throughout the Democratic National Convention, which — symbolically — took place the same week we commemorated the 26-year anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Disability rights advocate Anastasia Samoza offered a ringing endorsement of Clinton: “In a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible, Hillary Clinton sees me.”

I know she sees my son too. She has pledged to fully support “a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked and undervalued, who have so much to offer but are given too few chances to prove it.”

Clinton is pragmatic. She has a record of reaching across the aisle and getting things done. Her plan fully takes into account the needs of our disabled adult population. It has the potential to be as far reaching and life-altering as I.D.E.A. My son deserves that most basic of human rights: a life without fear of abuse, one filled with meaning and purpose.

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A Letter to My Son on the Autism Spectrum

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Dear son,

You were diagnosed with autism when you were 4 years old. I didn’t know what this meant for you, for us. I was terrified, relieved and hopeful, all at once. At least now we knew why you were having the difficulties you were having and could give you the support you needed. The doctor told us autism would bring life-long challenges, but there were some things we could do to help you.

So it began: years of intensive behavior therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. In the beginning, you seemed to wonder why we were putting you through what we were putting you through. I could see you felt hurt, betrayed, lost and confused. I questioned everything we were doing for you. Were we doing the right thing? Were we helping you or harming you? Was this worth the pain you were going through?

Then, slowly but surely, we started seeing a difference. We started seeing you cross one hurdle after another. You were more comfortable, more confident, more in control of the environment around you. You were doing well at home and at school. You had always been very intelligent. You excelled in academics now that you were better equipped to deal with the environment around you. The teachers couldn’t stop talking about how brilliant you were. You always came first in class. You finished your assignments in half the average time. You excelled in knowledge of all the subjects. You displayed an integrity of character well beyond your age.

As you grew older, you started finding it difficult to handle the increasingly complex social dynamics at school, and I watched you start withdrawing from the world around you. You asked me why you were not like the other children. You asked me why you found it difficult to do the things other children could do easily. I told you everybody had something they were good at and something they were not so good at, but you weren’t convinced. You realized there was more to it.

I knew, then, that you needed to know about your autism. You were 10 years old at the time. I was apprehensive about telling you that you had autism, but your response when I told you about it laid any fears I had to rest. You were extremely grateful and relieved upon learning about your autism. You thanked me profusely for telling you about it, because now you understood why you were the way you were, why you did the things you did, why you felt the way you felt, and you didn’t feel bad about it anymore; you didn’t feel like you weren’t good enough or weren’t trying hard enough. You realized it wasn’t your fault, and it seemed like a load had been lifted from your shoulders. I watched as you blossomed from that point onward.

Eventually, it was clear the rigid framework of conventional schooling wasn’t working for you, so we decided to homeschool you. I feel it’s one of the best decisions we made for you.

Your journey has not been an easy one, but it has been one of strength, courage and indomitable human spirit. You make me proud of you every single day through your resilience, your perseverance, your spirit, your strength, your courage, your integrity, your empathy, your clarity, your intelligence and so much more. You are and always will be my hero.

Love you with all my heart,

Mom

Image via Thinkstock.

A version of this post originally appeared on Rainbow in the Clouds.

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When Another Parent Misunderstood My Daughter on the Spectrum

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We were at my daughter’s first kindergarten birthday party. It was at a bowling alley. She was super excited. She’s been to a ton of birthday parties, mind you. That in itself is not new. She is a veteran party-goer. She loves a good party. But this was the first birthday party she was invited to since she was officially a full-time, mainstreamed kindergartener. She hit the big leagues, so to say. My daughter was about to turn 6 herself in about a week and a half, so birthday parties in general were the topic of conversation on the way to the party. She was in her booster seat with her service dog laying right beneath her feet while she chatted away. My, how time has flown by, I thought in my head. Here she is, talking a million miles a minute, partly to me, partly to herself, partly to her service dog, and then sometimes she’d take a break to sing along with a verse or two of a Kidz Bop song on the radio. She never stopped once. But that’s my daughter. Go, go, go.

“Mama?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“You be there the whole time?”

“Yes.”

And so we began our list. She loves lists and she loves forecasting. She likes to know how the day will play out. Routine is very important to her. So much so that I write out a chart in the morning for her to check off. She likes to talk about the days of the week, where she’ll be each day. (She even likes to ask me how old I am, almost every. single. day. So I am happy to report, as of this writing, I am still 42.) So we reviewed the plan for the day. As we get closer, she makes the plan into shorter, briefer words: “Park the car, get the present, get the service dog, go inside, have cake, bowl, have a party, leave, go home, see my sister…” and it goes on. We review it a few times. If we deviate, we discuss. I let her know I am not sure when we’ll have cake. She is not liking that. I told her we will deal with that part as it comes.

My daughter’s challenges are not always apparent. So much so that many think (and say) “it looks like there’s nothing wrong with her” (whatever that looks like, I am not sure). However, she is indeed on the spectrum. Her being on the spectrum may be harder for other people to understand than it is for me, her own mother. It can also be hard for others to swallow when I let them know she has a mild brain malformation. Again — harder for others. I am 100 percent at peace with these “things.” She also has minor focal seizures — which we hope may go away some day — chronic lung and ear/sinus infections and a developmental delay. These are also things I am at peace with and accept. I love my daughter exactly as she is and as she continues to be. As she grows, she continues to amaze me. She is a wonder.

Later during the party, I watched and listened in amazement at her growth, as she can now communicate completely independently and use her words. I saw her put her fingers in her ears and she leaned up against the wall. The birthday girl’s big brother (he’s in second grade) went up to her to see if she was OK and then came up to me. “What’s wrong with her? Why is she being weird?” he asked me. But not in a mean way — he was really concerned. I answered him, “Well, we’re all a little different in our own way. Sometimes we all need a break and express it differently.” He thought about my answer most sincerely. I could see it in his face. He stared at me and then at her.

I walked over to my daughter with her dog and asked her to follow me. We went down a long corridor together. Someone who I am guessing may have worked there asked if we were OK and if we were “really going to sit there on the carpet like that?” And I said, “Yes. Really. We are.” And we did. We took a break with my daughter, her dog and I on the carpet in the middle of the corridor on the floor. We sat in silence. I said nothing. She petted her dog. Then she laid on him. I petted him, too. After about 10 minutes, she sat up. “OK,  I am ready now.” Again, I was so impressed with her ability to communicate and verbalize her needs to me. It’s amazing how far we’ve come. So I stopped her right there and hugged her. I hugged her hard. I told her I loved her. Just as she was. She told me she was thirsty. Even trade.

We went back to the “alley” where her lane was. Her best friend was waiting for her, and her best friend’s mom was there, too. My daughter overheard her friend’s mom say something, and my daughter repeated it like she sometimes likes to do. She then questioned what the mom said, confused after having taken it literally. The mom, irritated, corrected her. I softly intervened as I knew my daughter was in a “good place” after the break and I didn’t want her to lose that. So I tried to help. I explained to the mom, “She means no harm. She likes to repeat what people say sometimes, and sometimes she can take things literally, that’s all.” The mom shot me a look. “Well, isn’t this the age?” she said curtly, and she turned away annoyed.

My face turned red. I looked away and blinked back the tears. My attempt to talk to another mom was quickly shut down and misunderstood very fast. I wasn’t embarrassed at all by my daughter. Not one bit. That was not why my face was red or why there were tears. I think my reaction was shock at the realization of how little communication I have with other moms “out there.” It hit me cold in the face. She totally didn’t “get” me or us or any of it. I felt very misunderstood for my daughter.

young boy and girl bowling

Meanwhile, the older brother of the birthday girl came barreling over to me. “Hey! Hey! I have been looking for ya! Where’d you guys go? Was everything OK? Was she OK?” He was genuinely concerned. What a sweet kid, I thought. He continued, “I got a strike! She missed it! You missed it! I wanted to tell her! I can help her bowl… if she wants me to? Her dog can come with us? How can I help?”

And just like that, a second-grade boy, who was only there for his little sister’s birthday and who only asked one simple question about a girl and her dog, “got it.” Amazing.

I later found him and my daughter together with a bowling ball. He was attempting to teach her how to put her fingers in the three holes, which she wanted no part of. I took a picture of that moment. It was priceless, because he totally let her be her. It was awesome.

That boy reminded me of the mom I have been for close to six years. The mom who is proud. The mom who is 42 years old. Every day since my birthday. The mom who is on schedule (so far…) this week. And the mom who hopes to continue to watch her daughter be everything she hopes and dreams to be.

Thanks, kid.

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Learning to Be More Open to What My Son on the Autism Spectrum Really Needs

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Twelve years ago this month, I walked into our pediatrician’s office with my then-17-month-old son in tow, hoping for a prescription for reflux. I walked out shaking, crushed by our doctor’s callousness, and clutching four mis-stapled and badly copied articles about autism in my trembling hands. Our pediatrician never uttered the word himself, just told me to call a developmental pediatrician, thrust some numbers on a stickie into my hand and left the room.

He wasn’t our pediatrician much longer.

I remember being in shock as I left the office, as we’d just been in four weeks prior and our insensitive doctor had not seemed that concerned with the delays our toddler was demonstrating. I also remember as I made my way to the pharmacy to fill that prescription, which would at least let me help him with his reflux. I called upon my experience with the few autistic children I’d had as a teacher in my homeroom and classroom, thinking those few encounters would give me a leg up on raising my own autistic child. Boy, was I wrong.

As they say on “Game of Thrones,” I knew nothing, Kim McCafferty.

The year was 2004, a time when Jenny McCarthy was talked about a lot in the autism community. While navigating doctors appointments and the murky and ultimately deeply disappointing world of what passed for Early Intervention in northern Virginia, I spent any time I wasn’t interacting with my son researching autism on the internet, and God was it confusing.

There were parents claiming the only positive outcome of this diagnosis could be a “cure.”

There were autistic advocates and parents of autistic children claiming an alternative neurology cannot and should not be “cured.”

There were professionals informing me that studies showed that sign language gave kids an edge over learning to talk and should always be employed.

There were professionals informing me that alternative methods should always be explored, matching the child’s strengths to the appropriate communication system.

There were parents telling me not to vaccinate.

There were physicians telling me I’d better vaccinate.

There were parents explaining to me that a public school program was the way to go for their opportunities for mainstreaming, which should be my ultimate goal.

There were teachers sharing with me that despite the push for it, mainstreaming might not be the most important goal regarding my son’s future education.

As I look over my list, I realize not all that much has changed in a dozen years.

I did my best by my son Justin in those early and isolated years, reading and attending workshops whenever possible. I often felt the two of us were drowning back then, combating my son’s insomnia, aggression, gastrointestinal disorders and his adherence to having things a certain way (he would eventually receive a dual diagnosis of OCD and autism). My husband worked, our families were three hours away, and all my friends either had careers or were busy raising babies of their own. I often felt adrift at sea, anchorless.

Ultimately what I clung to to get through it all were my choices regarding Justin’s therapy, usually based on articles I’d read, clutching their information to me as tightly as I had clutched those initial articles which had in one instant completely altered my world.

I displayed my own rigid behavior regarding that information. According to studies I’d read, sign language more often gave way to words, in my opinion a must for my boy even though his fine and gross motor abilities were delayed.

I was told that he should absolutely attend a public school program both for the chance he’d mainstream, and so he’d make friends with neurotypical peers.

And if it weren’t for professionals who gently offered me alternatives to both of these choices and asked me to keep an open mind, despite my best intentions, I might have done my son more harm than good.

After we moved to New Jersey and actually received appropriate Early Intervention services (yay the Garden State!), I clearly recall one of the therapists from Rutgers gently pointing out to me that after more than a year of working with my son, he only had a handful of signs, and some of those were used sporadically at best. I remember initially feeling that using the PECS system meant giving up on words, instead of focusing on the fact that my then 22-month old might actually end up with a way to communicate his needs other than by mostly crying.

If I hadn’t listened, he might have spent many more months often frustrated by his mother’s inability to read his mind.

I had that same rigid mindset originally as from Virginia we attempted to find the most fantastical, amazing, perfect autism program in the perfect NJ town (oy!) because I wanted my son in the public schools for the mainstreaming opportunities, and I didn’t want him sent out of district. At the tender age of 3 I wanted him to have opportunities to engage with neurotypical peers. I wanted him to have friends, to interact with others. This was the most important goal in my life, more than losing that last seven “baby weight” pounds or consuming large amounts of chocolate every day.

OK, that last is still an important goal.

After four years in two different public school districts, it became apparent that the only one who cared about his interactions with neurotypical peers was me, and that his home school district really didn’t have an appropriate program for him anymore. I remember my mom, a special educator with three decades of experience, gently telling me to look at the big picture for Justin, that perhaps him having friends was not the most important issue now, that in fact Justin really didn’t seem to care about his peers. I recall making the mental shift to becoming open to sending him to a private autism school, where educators could help him focus on the academics he loved so much, where down the road he would have better access to job programs and adult programs, and hell, even a swimming pool he’d frequent daily during his eight-week summer program.

I’m still learning how to make the shift from wanting for Justin what I think he should need to what he really needs (it remains a learning curve for me), and by keeping an open mind, I know my choices for him have contributed to the thriving, happy teenager who loves school and loves his life. I still struggle to do this with both my boys (what parent doesn’t), often employing a “what would Zach/Justin do” mentality when considering my options.

And I still make mistakes. I am still sometimes slow to recognize a shift in need, still working on ridding myself of “what should be.”

But as with many things in life, I’m still a work in progress, and keeping an open mind is one goal I plan to keep.

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If Your Autistic Teenager Is Afraid to Get Behind the Wheel

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For some teenagers, getting a driver’s license might symbolize their freedom and new life as an adult. But not every teenager counts the days until they get their driver’s license. I learned to drive in high school along with the rest of my classmates. At that time in my life, I didn’t know I’m autistic. What I did know, however, was that I felt scared and instinctively knew I wasn’t ready to drive. I did great on the written exam. Being behind the wheel out on the road with the instructor was a different story.

There was too much going on that I felt like I’d simply shut down. I couldn’t determine the distance of other vehicles, especially when trying to pull out onto a main road, nor their speed. The instructor would tell me I had plenty of time to pull out onto the road, but I’d just sit there thinking the oncoming traffic was too close and going too fast. Out on the main roads, I’d get fixated on one thing, like someone tailgating me. Keeping track of everything going on around me, all the others vehicles, traffic lights, signs, pedestrians, handling the car itself, was all just too much for me to cope with. In the back of my mind was the ever-present realization that operating a vehicle on the road could possibly result in an accident, either fatal to myself or others as well.

Driving is a huge responsibility that one must be ready to handle. After I got my driver’s license, I reluctantly drove for a few months. I then made the decision it was too overwhelming to me, so I stopped driving. My mom became my official chauffeur. My mom was not the least bit upset at my decision. She sensed my intuition was correct. My classmates found this all quite hilarious and was great fodder for even more bullying. None of that was going to motivate me to drive. I simply knew I wasn’t ready. I didn’t start driving again until I was 40. I still didn’t know I was autistic, but I felt ready to take to the roads again. So, as if I’d been doing it my whole life, I began to drive again. The more I drove, the more confident I became. I follow all the rules of the road and obey all the traffic laws.

There are reasons why an autistic individual might be fearful of driving. One aspect is that driving is somewhat of a social function — you have to read the driving scene. There are also the risks of not being able to stay focused while driving, handling the constant changes that occur while driving, and dealing with the unexpected. It’s nonstop multi-tasking in a moving object, surrounded by other moving objects, possibly at high rates of speed.

When learning to drive, it is imperative that everything be broken down into small tasks. Then, once comfortable, put all the pieces together. It might take longer for someone to learn to drive, but a person should be able to take as long as they need to learn. The main goal is safety. It can be challenging for an autistic person to learn that others on the road might not follow all the rules like they do. Teaching drivers to expect the unexpected while driving is an abstract concept, yet a critical one. Allow frequent breaks during driving lessons to let each piece of information to settle in and not overwhelm the individual. Drive on familiar routes until fully comfortable. New routes can be overwhelming and should be avoided until the person is totally comfortable handling the vehicle and dealing with traffic in familiar surroundings. Teach the driver to remain calm when others break the rules of the road. Explain what road rage is and how to avoid instigating another driver. Teach them that playing music while driving might be a distraction.

Use empty parking lots on early Sunday mornings as areas to do simulations of driving and becoming at ease with being behind the wheel. Empty parking lots are also great places to have the person learn how to drive and operate windshield wipers, the air conditioner, defrost, etc., while in motion. And of course practicing parking and parallel parking.

Lastly, there’s the possibility of some interaction with law enforcement for whatever may be the reason. Talk about how to interact with a police officer or other such person.

If an autistic individual is fearful of getting behind the wheel, parents and family members need to understand the complexity of this matter. Don’t ever try to force him or her to learn to drive. Instead, offer your support, telling them you will be happy to help them whenever they feel ready to get their driver’s license and start driving. They will know when they are ready to take that big step.

Last November, a year ago, I helped my autistic husband Abraham get his driver’s license. I came up with a plan that worked beautifully! As an autistic person, I know how we tend to thrive on routine and do best when in our comfort zone. So here’s what I had him do in order to build that comfort zone behind the wheel. First, we went outside to my truck in the driveway. I got in the passenger’s seat, and Abraham in the driver’s seat. I told him to first buckle up his seat belt, then put the key in the ignition and start it up. Once started, I told him to shut it off and just sit there a bit. I then told him to get out, go back to house and come out and do it all over, 10 times! So he did it all, 10 times. It took awhile, but by the 10th time, he did it so routinely as if he’d been doing it for years. Once he was totally comfortable with that, I had him back up the truck in the driveway between all the trees, then go forward to the starting point. Again, 10 times. Then I had him go out the driveway to the subdivision across the street, drive throughout the quiet, meandering road there, then return to our driveway. Again, yes, 10 times. Then I had him go down the road to a different subdivision and drive around there 10 times. I had him take breaks in between as not to overload him. We started the whole process at 8 a.m. By 1 p.m, we were ready to venture out on some quiet, familiar roads where there was minimal traffic. He drove for an hour, then back home. I then taught him to parallel park 10 times, of course!

The next day, he felt ready to drive all around town, graduating to roads where he had to go 45 miles per hour to maintain pace with everyone. Of course, prior to starting all the “hands-on,” he had memorized the driver’s manual. One thing he had problems with was stop signs. He thought you actually have to stop exactly where the stop sign is placed, typically at least 20 feet from the actual intersection. He was taking it literally, so he’d stop right at the sign. I explained that if you really stop right at the sign, most likely you won’t be able to get a clear visual of the intersection. I showed him how you stop at the stop sign but slowly ease up to where you can clearly see the intersection and all oncoming traffic. Then he finally understood. On the third day, he took his driver’s test and got his driver’s license.

You must first feel totally comfortable sitting in the driver’s seat, learning how to put on the blinker, windshield wipers, A/C or heat, etc. Start out slow and just be calm. Remember to take many breaks. There is no rush. The one thing to always remember is safety is the most important thing!

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