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Learning to drive as an Autistic Person

I think learning to drive is a stressful experience for most young people but add in a neurospicy brain and that stress goes off the scale. The day before I turned 17 I was hospitalised inpatient and didn't get out properly till I was 18 so couldn't start lessons. My dream was always to be a paramedic and of course a requirement is to be able to drive. I eventually started after I turned 18 on a go kart track, it was definitely a good start to be able to just focus on the mechanics. However a mixture of severe anxiety, suicidal ideation and not knowing I was autistic meant it was not a good experience. I couldn't go above 5 miles an hour, I insisted I didn't need to use the accelerator and refused to drive on the roads. I was rehospitalised again and that became the pattern for the next three years. I did try and do lessons in between but I was never in the right head space and just couldn't focus.

If I'm being honest I shouldn't have been even trying to learn, I wasn't well enough but the need to be what I deemed as 'successful' overpowered everything. However the constant failure ruined my fragile state of mind even more. My heart was set on becoming a paramedic and therefore needing to be able to drive but everything felt so impossible. I believed I would never do it and just wasn't capable. I was diagnosed as autistic at 19 and went on my own journey of self discovery and acceptance. I tried lessons again after the pandemic but the first teacher I had I didn't even start with and the second one I had two lessons then freaked out and he moved away. I then gave up on the whole thing again. I had only probably had about 6 hours of lessons in four years but my craving for being perfect meant I had a complete mental block. Up until this point it had never gone well. I had never clicked with any of my instructors, that is something which is so important especially as an autistic person. Your instructor needs to work for you- that will look very different for everybody but this is really important for it to work. I needed to be in the right head space, I needed to genuinely believe I could do it, my anxiety meant I overthought the whole thing. I wasn't just aware of my surrounding I was completely paranoid. There is a fine balance between being aware and being so paranoid you can't move.

For me I had the added difficulty I have a PDA profile (pathological demand avoidance). Which of course makes learning a new a skill extra difficult. There are lots of demands when it comes to driving and freaking out or not being able to do it would be really dangerous.

I decided in the summer of 2022 I would do my theory, it was completely random. I wasn't having lessons but I just did it. I passed first time as the theory of things isn't something I struggle with. This gave me a much needed burst of confidence and I began looking for instructors again. However there was no one out there. Eventually after Christmas I decided to go with an intensive company and do a 25hr course. My first lesson was 7th March. I was really anxious leading up to it. The teacher just messaged me the dates and that was it. She turned up late to the first lesson, drove me to a back road and just got out and said ok off you go. Bear in mind this was said to someone who truly believed she couldn't do it, had panic attacks and refused to use an accelerator. That day I drove for 2hrs. Off I went, that lady and her dog (who always came on my lessons with me- definitely the reason I passed!!) changed my life. Her approach worked perfectly for me, she paralled my bonkersness and in someways was probably even more bonkers than I am! Freddie the dog was always there for a supportive stroke when I got in. Pet therapy is definitely the way forward. I think every instructor should have a dog with them ! I failed my first test but I didn't even cry or have a meltdown. On the 5th May 2023, three months after starting I passed my test. It was such a proud moment, going into work and telling my mum I had done it was such an achievement.

For so long I never thought I would be able to, not that I couldn't learn to drive but that my anxiety, PDA and fear of rejection meant it was too big and scary a mountain to climb. I had four teachers before this lady and all had said I'd never do it and if they didn't say it explicitly they showed by refusing lessons. My path since I turned 15 hasn't been linear. So of course neither was learning to drive. But what this experience has showed me is that I can do anything I set my mind too. I disclosed to my instructors my difficulties, some then stepped on egg shells however the approach my last instructor had was just say it how it is. We just talked rubbish and it was the perfect environment for me to learn.

When people find you have 'additional needs' they immediately think of all the things you can't do, the challenges you face and the negatives. Being different doesn't have to mean you can't achieve your dreams. Yes we might have to go around things in different ways. The social model of disability talks of how it isn't our lack but society's narrow minded approach to how people succeed. Those of us who are neurodiverse we are here to pave the way for the next generation, to show them there is no time frame to life, you can do things at different times to the norm. That success looks different for everyone and achievements will to. For some to learn to drive is just another rite of passage, for me it was a challenge as big as a trek to the North Pole. My achievement in passing for me was huge.

Being autistic and learning to drive may seem like an impossible task. Firstly I say it's not necessary to do it. You are not a better person or more of an adult if you can drive. On the other hand however, if it is something you want (and can legally do!) don't let being autistic be the barrier to that. It may well take a different approach. You may need to wait for the right time, you need to discover yourself and the way your brain learns, you probably will have to try many different instructors. But like me you can achieve this and when you do don't underestimate the enormity of what you have achieved. We will fight for a world in which all people have equal chances, we are not there yet but inclusivity is key to a community in which everyone can thrive.

Lots of love

Hannah <3 xx


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