Some autistic people may find the skill of driving extremely difficult to grasp, whilst others will be highly competent drivers. A diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome should not in itself be a barrier to holding a licence. However, you must tell DVLA if your disability affects your ability to drive safely.
Applying for a provisional license
You would normally need to be aged 17 to hold a licence to drive a car (Category B), but if you receive the higher rate mobility component of DLA (Disability Living Allowance) or the enhanced rate mobility component of PIP (Personal Independence Payment) you may hold a licence from age 16. You can apply for your licence three months before your birthday.
Find out how to apply for a provisional licence.
Rules regarding fitness to drive
You do not have to disclose to the DVLA your diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome unless it affects your ability to drive safely. But if you do not disclose a condition that affects your ability to drive safely at the time of application, you could be fined up to £1000. You could be prosecuted if you are involved in an accident.
The guidelines say that safe driving involves, among other things: vision, visuospatial perception, hearing, attention and concentration, memory, insight and understanding, judgement, adaptive strategies, good reaction time, planning and organisation, ability to self-monitor, sensation, muscle power and control, coordination.
For an autistic person, barriers to holding a licence might include a history of epilepsy, perceptual problems, difficulties with multi-tasking, poor motor control or dyspraxia and problems with sequencing. These should not be an absolute barrier to gaining a licence but you will need to be aware that they may present difficulties.
Initially it may be worth discussing the plan to learn to drive with your GP. Your GP will have access to the guidelines and will be able to go through these with you.
Find out about the process of disclosing and the decision to grant a licence, and what to do if you disagree with the decision. The Disability Law Service also provide information about what to do if your application is refused or if your licence has been revoked.
Financial help with buying a car and driving lessons
If a person is in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), or the enhanced rate of the mobility component of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), they are eligible to join the Motability scheme. When a person joins the Motability scheme the higher rate mobility component of DLA/PIP is paid directly to Motability and in return, the person can lease or purchase a vehicle through the scheme.
The Motability scheme can also help with the cost of driving lessons. Only individuals who are currently a Motability customer, or intend to be a customer once they have passed their test, will be entitled to help with the cost of driving lessons. Motability customers can also apply for help towards the cost of driving lessons for a nominated driver or carer if they are unable to drive themselves. Only one person per Motability customer can normally be helped with the cost of driving lessons.
Find out more about Motability.
Learning to drive
Before taking lessons you may want to observe traffic when travelling around and even watch driving videos that may help you to become more aware of the rules of the road and methods of driving.
It may help when you first start driving lessons to take information with you about autism so that your instructor can understand your needs and adapt strategies which may help your understanding. You may want to explain any sensory issues you have, for instance, if you have problems with glare from the sun or from headlights.
It may be worthwhile asking for things to be written down or drawn when being explained to you, if you feel this would help. As some autistic people can have difficulty with concentrating for long periods of time, you may want to request that you have frequent breaks during lessons and that information is broken down in to small parts for you. Your instructor may need to use physical cues to help you with estimating speed and distance.
Learning to drive is a challenge for everyone. As Marc Segar (a man with Asperger syndrome) says:
"Driving is quite a bizarre skill to learn. How fast you pick up driving has nothing to do with your intelligence in other things. Some real dimwits are able to learn to drive in as few as five lessons whereas some really intelligent people can need as many as fifty lessons."
Remember that you can take your time over learning to drive; very few people pick it up very quickly. Try and get as much practice in as you can with someone you feel comfortable with.
Some of the skills you will be picking up will be very new so do not anticipate a smooth learning curve. If you have always had problems with sequencing, you may find it very hard to get into the routine of checking everything before pulling away from the kerb the first few times you drive a car. However, this should become easier as you become more familiar with the routine. Because autistic people are often very good at following routines, your instructor may find that you are a more reliable and consistent driver than most.
People with autism are often good at remembering rules, such as those in the Highway Code. However, sometimes other drivers may make mistakes regarding the rules of the road and it is important to try and stay calm in these situations.
Kathie Harrington is the mother of an adult son with autism. She has written an article on teaching people on the autism spectrum to drive a car. This includes useful tips for both the learner driver and the instructor.
Jenny Lushington is a retired teacher who taught children on the autism spectrum and John Harrison has Asperger syndrome. They have written a guide on driving and Asperger syndrome which provides useful tips for learner drivers and their driving instructors.
Driving Mobility is a UK-wide network of independent organisations that provide a range of mobility assessment services and advice.
Find a driving instructor with experience of teaching people with disabilities.
When booking your test it is important to inform the Driving Standards Agency of any special requirements.
The theory test
The theory test is available in spoken as well as written format. Test conditions can be adapted if you have light-sensitive epilepsy. Some drivers with disabilities can ask for extra time for the theory test. The Driving Standards Agency would need to be informed of the disability, and needs relating to this, when the test is being booked.
The practical test
Although you have a disability, you will still have to take the same test as everyone else and be able to display the same level of ability. However, some drivers with disabilities may be allowed extra time for their test.
Dawn Larman at The Scottish Autism Services Network helped one of her members with Asperger syndrome to produce a declaration of disability letter for their driving test. This resulted in the individual getting extra time and adaptations in their test.
You may want to use this as a template to be adapted to your specific diagnosis and needs:
Free road tax
You can get free road if you receive DLA higher rate mobility or the enhanced mobility element of PIP. Find out more about vehicle tax exemption.
A car insurance company should be notified of a disability. Under the Equality Act 2010 (or Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland), insurers can only charge disabled people higher premiums if the extra charge is based on factual or statistical data, or there are other relevant factors which indicate that a disabled person is at higher risk.
We do not know of any car insurance companies who are specifically aware of autism. We can only suggest that you check in detail the policy of individual insurance companies.
What to do if you have an accident
Hopefully this is something that you will not experience, but if you do it is something that you need to be prepared for. It is worth having written instructions in your car on what to do if an accident occurs that you can refer to. It is also worth talking to your driving instructor about what is classed as an accident and in what situations the following action is appropriate.
- Stop at the scene of the accident and switch off your car's engine. Put on your hazard lights. Be careful when leaving your car, being aware of other traffic.
- The first thing to do if you have an accident is to try and stay calm. Maybe take some slow, deep breaths or use whatever anxiety-reducing methods may work for you.
- Call 999 immediately if anyone is injured, if the collision scene is dangerous or if someone involved leaves the scene without exchanging the details required by law (more information on these details follows). You may also want to call an appropriate adult who may be able to help.
- It is useful to keep a disposable camera, and a pen and paper in your car in case an accident does happen. Make a sketch or take a photo of the accident scene, remembering to note street names, vehicle locations, collision points and any damage to vehicles.
- Get the names, addresses and vehicle registrations of any witnesses, including passengers in the other vehicle(s) involved.
- Take down the registration number, make, model and colour of the other vehicle(s) involved in the accident. Drivers (including yourself) must then exchange their own details by law. This includes name, address, telephone number and insurance details (the name and address of each driver's insurance company, and insurance policy numbers if available).
- If the other car involved is parked and its driver isn't present, you must leave a note with your details on the car, perhaps under the windscreen wiper.
- You must then notify your insurance company of the accident.
The blue badge scheme enables people with a disability to park close to their destination without having to pay. You or the person you care for will automatically qualify for the blue badge if you receive DLA higher rate mobility. The enhanced mobility element of PIP may not automatically qualify you for the blue badge. Blue badges are administered through local authorities, usually social services departments (social work departments in Scotland). You can apply for one by requesting a form from your local social services department.
Find out more about the Blue Badge scheme.
Disabled Motoring UK
Disabled Motorist Federation
Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)
Driver and Vehicle Agency Northern Ireland (DVANI)
Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency
Information about car insurance from the Disabled Motorists Federation
Get motoring, from Disability Rights UK
Transport if you're disabled, UK Government
Enhancing driving performance in young adults with autism spectrum disorder, Cox, N. B. et al (2012)