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U.K. Updates Driving Rule After Autistic Drivers Protest

On Monday, the U.K.’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) clarified and reversed a language change in its policy requiring autistic drivers to report their diagnosis, even if it didn’t affect their ability to drive. After the autistic community realized this change had taken effect, they rallied together and, pointing out this was disability discrimination, demanded answers from the DVLA.

Advocates had noticed the policy change in late February, though it’s unclear when it occurred because the DVLA failed to effectively communicate it with drivers and other organizations. The new language on Gov.UK stated, “You must tell DVLA if you have an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).” This was followed by an explanation that failing to do so would result in a £1,000 fine and possible prosecution if involved in an accident. 

Previously, the DVLA guidelines had read, “You must tell DVLA if you have an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and it affects your ability to drive safely.” Previous language made it clear it was only necessary to report to the DVLA when a diagnosis impacted driving ability.

Once they noted the change on DVLA’s website, many people expressed their outrage over the policy by posting on social media.

Following the outcry online, The National Autistic Society (NAS) challenged the DVLA, questioning the justification of its new policy on behalf of the many people concerned since they were not previously aware they needed to report autism, even if it didn’t affect their driving. NAS also called for the DVLA to make sure nobody was fined due to the lack of proper communication on this change in policy.

“We’re upset on a number of levels, but the lack of communication is horrifying as we’ve all potentially been driving illegally since they changed the rules,” Laura James, who is an autistic ambassador for the NAS, said in a statement. “Also, we were all autistic when we passed our tests, which are obviously designed to test people’s skills and ensure they are safe to drive, so this change seems nonsensical.”

In response, the DVLA released a statement on Monday on Twitter apologizing for the confusion in its policy, saying:

In our attempt to clarify the advice for drivers with autism spectrum disorders we’ve clearly muddied the waters and we’re very sorry for that. We have amended the advice on GOV.UK for both drivers and medical professionals, which make it clear that a driver who has an autism spectrum disorder only need tell us if their condition could affect their driving.”

According to NAS, while there was no DVLA policy change that prompted the language update, the change in wording still had consequences for those on the spectrum. Many autistic drivers were concerned they would lose their licenses. The Guardian reported one autistic woman said the policy made her fearful to even seek a long-awaited autism diagnosis because she didn’t want to lose her ability to drive.

“Some of us, driving safely for 30 years or more, had to fight to get on a waiting list for an autism diagnosis,” she said. “We’ve been on that list for a year or more. Thanks to the DVLA, we’ve felt threatened into deleting our names and refusing a diagnosis and support.”

So while the DVLA policy, apparently, never changed, the call for clarification was made possible thanks to the effort of the autistic community, who noticed the change. However, many autistic drivers remain deeply concerned about what will happen now, as they were told last week they could be fined for not disclosing their diagnosis.

NAS pointed out that although the DVLA clarified and updated the language back to its original state, there are still several questions that need to be answered.

“While we welcome the DVLA’s clarification and recognition that not all autistic people need to disclose their diagnosis, there are still many outstanding questions from us and autistic people,” Tim Nicholls, head of policy at NAS, said in a statement. He added:

Autism is a lifelong disability and, if someone has passed their driving test, we can’t see how a subsequent autism diagnosis would change their ability to drive. In particular, we want to know exactly what autistic people need to do next — especially if they have already contacted the DVLA and been told to return a form or face a fine. We are calling on the DVLA to ensure no autistic driver could be fined due to the organization’s mistake.

Nicholls also stressed the need for the DVLA to issue clear guidance outlining the whole process for autistic people.

The Mighty has reached out to DVLA and has yet to hear back.

Banner image: screenshot from DVLA site and Getty Image by FlamingoImages