Getting a driver’s license is an important milestone for many teens and young adults, including those with autism. But all beginner drivers face hazards on the road.
New research analyzing motor vehicle crashes shows that teens with autism are half as likely to crash due to speeding as their peers, but three times more likely to crash when making a left turn or U-turn.
Those findings suggest drivers with autism may benefit from tailored training, according to researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) and the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Our findings are noteworthy because they suggest newly licensed autistic drivers may establish driving patterns that balance independent mobility and risk, bringing their crash risk in line with other young drivers,” said senior study author Allison Curry, director of epidemiology at CIRP.
“By learning more about their driving patterns and how their crashes differ from those of their peers, we can develop tailored training to help autistic adolescents and young adults develop the range of skills needed to become safe, independent drivers,” Curry said in a hospital news release.
For the study, the researchers examined data from New Jersey residents born between 1987 and 2000 who were patients in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia care network. This included nearly 500 licensed drivers with autism and just under 71,000 drivers without autism. The study spanned their first four years of driving.
Patients’ electronic health records were linked with statewide driver licensing and crash databases. The researchers found that young drivers with autism who were involved in crashes were more likely to crash while making a left turn or U-turn or after failing to yield to another vehicle or pedestrian.
The study authors suggested that drivers with autism may have slower motor speed and visual scanning skills, as well as weaknesses in processing speed that can make it more difficult to identify and prioritize potential hazards.
According to co-author Benjamin Yerys, the study “suggests that autistic adolescents and young adults may benefit from more on-road training than their non-autistic peers. They may need more tailored training in navigating turns and interacting safely with pedestrians and other vehicles.” Yerys is a psychologist, and the director of the Data and Statistical Core at CAR.
About one-third of people with autism who do not have an intellectual disability get their driver’s license by age 21, the study authors noted.
Though past studies with simulators suggested drivers with autism could be at a higher risk for crashes, no previous research looked objectively at the real-world risk of crashes and traffic violations among them, according to the study.
The findings were recently published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
The Autism Society has more on driving with autism.
SOURCE: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, news release, Jan. 28, 2021
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