Young autistic drivers crash less than other newly licensed young people

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — New research out of Philadelphia finds young autistic drivers tend to be quite safe on the road. In comparison to other young drivers just getting their licenses, autistic drivers receive fewer moving violations and license suspensions. Also, the study finds autistic drivers have similar or even lower crash rates than other adolescents getting behind the wheel.

This study was a collaboration between the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) and the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

The occurrence of autistic drivers on the road isn’t as rare as some may assume. In fact, roughly one-third of autistic adults with no intellectual disability get a driver’s license by their 21st birthday.

Changing the assumptions about autistic drivers

Earlier research using driving simulators concluded that autistic drivers may be more likely to crash. That theory seemed to make a degree of sense, considering autism can impact both motor coordination and visual processing speed. However, this is the first project to examine real world accident and driving statistics.

Researchers looked at a group of New Jersey residents who had been in the CHOP Care Network between 1987 and 2000. The team then linked each person’s electronic health records with statewide driver license and car crash databases. In total, all of that data encompassed 70,990 non-autistic individuals and 486 autistic drivers over their first four years behind the wheel.

“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,” says senior study author Allison E. Curry, PhD, MPH, in a media release.

“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,” the senior scientist and director of epidemiology at CIRP and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania adds.

Turning may still be an issue

Even when autistic drivers do end up involved in an accident, the results reveal they are only half as likely to crash due to speeding as other young drivers. Conversely, autistic drivers are over three times more likely to crash while making a left turn or a U-turn. Those findings indicate specialized driving courses for those with autism may be beneficial in terms of reducing turn-related accidents.

“Our study suggests that autistic adolescents and young adults may benefit from more on-road training than their non-autistic peers,” concludes study co-author Benjamin E. Yerys, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Data and Statistical Core at CAR.

“They may need more tailored training in navigating turns and interacting safely with pedestrians and other vehicles.”

The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent.

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