Tag Archives: driving

License to Worry

I know of several teenagers and several adults, both on and not-on the autism spectrum, who don’t drive or don’t want to. It could be because they realize that they’re too easily distracted, or that they know it’s a huge responsibility and don’t feel ready or comfortable, or even that they simply aren’t interested. I’m sure there are many reasons why people who don’t drive do not. Unfortunately, my son, who was diagnosed with autism at age three and didn’t start talking until age five, does not feel that any of those reasons apply to him. He wants to drive. And he turns sixteen next week.

Nigel has always wanted to be like everybody else. I know this because even before he could talk, he would try to interact with other children by going up to them and laughing in their faces or bumping into them in the hopes that they would play with him. Without words, he tried to engage them. When he started learning to talk, he would go up to kids at a playground, repeat lines from his favorite movies, mixing up words he didn’t know, and the other kids would ask, “What language is he speaking?” Years later, when he was being bullied at the bus stop, I told him that I would drive him to school instead. His response: “But I just want to take the bus so I can be like everybody else.” He is nothing if not determined.

I know that there are people on the autism spectrum who can and do drive. But Nigel is just not there yet, and it may be a while. It has nothing to do with his ability to operate a vehicle. If anything, that will be his strength. The problem is his high distractibility. And his five-year emotional delay. Those are the main things standing in the way of him getting his driver’s license. I wouldn’t feel confident with an eleven-year-old driving, even if he is 5’10”.

I’ve written about this subject before and received all sorts of well-meaning comments ranging from letting him practice so that he gets familiar with the feel of the car (definitely not the issue), to letting him race go-karts (he has for years), to the patronizing all-parents-are-nervous-about-their-kids-driving (not the same thing). Of course all parents are nervous about their kids driving. When my younger son, fourteen and not autistic, starts driving, I will be worried. But nowhere near as worried as I am about Nigel driving, that’s for certain. It’s a far different level of nervousness. They’re both my sons, and on that level I worry equally, but one son has major challenges with judgment and awareness. And on that level I’m far more nervous.

When Nigel started talking about wanting to drive around five years ago, I almost had a panic attack. He knew then that he would have to wait, but I knew that he would have to wait longer than he anticipated. Last year when he turned fifteen, I talked with him about that, but he still wanted to know when. He wanted to know just how long he would have to wait. I told him that we’d revisit the idea in a year, and he has repeatedly reminded me in the past month that the time has come. Ugh.

Why, oh why, did I have to have the kid with autism who wants to drive and progressed to the point where maybe he can, but maybe he can’t?? How will he handle the disappointment if it’s determined that he can’t drive? He’s not content to just maneuver the car around an empty parking lot or down a dirt road. Driving go-karts, though still fun, is not nearly enough. He wants his learner’s permit, and he wants it badly.

And there’s my answer, if I’m aware enough to realize it. He’ll pass the written test (I’m sure with flying colors, due to his near-photographic memory), and he’ll get his permit. And maybe, for now, that’s all he wants. He wants to have his learner’s permit like “everybody else.” He just wants to have it. And I’m hoping that having it will satisfy him for a while. I know that eventually he’ll want to get out on the street, but we don’t have to hit the road anytime soon. And when he starts asking to do that, I’ll sign him up with a professional driving instructor. I’ll still worry, of course. But at least I don’t have to yet.

Anyway, I’m hoping.

**UPDATE** Two month after this post was written, Nigel had two more seizures and, after a 24-hour EEG and MRI, was diagnosed with epilepsy. He never obtained his permit and, at 18, still does not drive.

The Talk

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Usually when parents think of “the talk,” we think of how to approach that first time that we tell our kids about sex – and all the other ensuing (hopefully much later) talks on the subject. Or the talk about drugs and alcohol. The talk about the importance of not stealing even if something “only” costs 25 cents. So many talks we parents have with our kids.

Add to that all the other difficult talks we have to have with our special needs kids. The talk about what autism is, and that he has it, or telling his brother about it. The talk about how sometimes kids are not really your friends if they try to get you to do something. Or if they say that you’re “entertaining.”  And then, when the child with whom I’d wondered if I’d ever have a conversation more involved than “Would you like a sandwich or eggs for dinner?” progresses to the point that he tells me when he’s turning 15 that he would like to get his driver’s permit, I realize that I have to have yet another difficult “talk.” Because as far as he’s come, as glad as I am that when he was six or seven he could actually respond that he wanted eggs for dinner, he’s not ready to drive. No way. And it’s not because I’m not ready to let him drive. It’s because he’s still far too distractible, impatient about traffic (in a scary way), and lacking judgment. Sure, many teens are that way. But with him it’s exponential. And letting him drive now would not be good judgment on my part. In fact, it would be insanely irresponsible.

But he really wants to drive and actually started talking about it when he was twelve. So this talk has been looming in the back of my mind for three years. And I’ve got to let him down gently. I’ve got to figure out a way to tell him that there’s yet another thing that his autism is going to affect, right when he’s gotten to a point where he’s started to accept it.

So I decide to do it during a time when he’s relaxed but somewhat engaged in an activity that he enjoys. And when it’s just the two of us carving pumpkins on a Saturday afternoon (since Aidan can’t handle the smell and doesn’t participate), I take a deep breath and dive in. I dance around the subject by casually mentioning some of the positive ways in which autism affects him  (learning to read early, being good with maps and remembering facts), and then I mention some of the difficult aspects (delay with learning to talk, his sensitive hearing, regulating behavior, etc.). I forge ahead and say that some people with autism need to wait a few years before they’re ready to start driving (as well as some who don’t have autism).

“But I don’t think I need to wait,” he says, his voice calm but purposeful as he carefully saws off the top of his pumpkin. “I think I’m ready for my permit.”

I gently remind him of how impatient he gets with traffic and that his response indicates that he needs to work on that before he can start learning to drive. I tell him that being good with machines and having the ability to operate the vehicle (his argument of readiness) is not the most important element of driving. That he needs responsibility, awareness, and judgment to safely drive a car.

He is still eerily calm. Is he actually understanding? I wonder, I hope. He quietly scoops out pumpkin seeds, seeming to take all of this in, although I can feel his disappointment. Then he stops briefly and asks, “When?”

Gulp. I should have expected that question to be part of the equation. No stranger to being put on the spot, I remember Mama Edge’s comment and quickly come up with a plan. I tell him that he needs to demonstrate three things to me whenever we’re in the car – patience with traffic, focus on (my) driving and not being distracted, and awareness of other vehicles, drivers, and pedestrians. I tell him that if he does all of those things in the next year, then when he’s sixteen we’ll discuss enrolling him in a driving class. I’m not convinced that he’ll be ready in a year. But I can’t dash his hopes.

“Does that sound good to you?” I ask. “Are you okay with that?”

“Yes. I’m okay with that,” he says in his usual flat voice. He won’t make eye contact, but he is calm, accepting. I praise him for his maturity, tell him that this is the first step in demonstrating patience and responsibility. For years now, he’s been aware of the limitations due to his autism, but he’s learned to accept it and work with it. He may not be ready to drive in a year, but someday, he will. Autism will often delay him, as it did with talking and so many other things, but it won’t stop him. This I know.

* Nigel’s is the happy one on the left

The Funk

Silver Falls State Park, OR

When I was in college, my roommates and I hosted a P-Funk party that people still talk about. We dressed up and wore wigs. We played records (yes, records) and really got down. But that’s not the kind of funk I’m into now. A few months ago, my two teen boys invited some friends over (more teen boys) for a sleepover, and the next morning, as they slept and I walked into the game room to survey the damage (almost as wild as my P-Funk party), I was hit with a wall of funk. Teenage-boy funk. Sweat, dirty socks, and (um, how to put this delicately?) expelled-air kind of funk.

But that’s not the kind of funk I’m in now. You know the kind, I’m sure – things are going mostly okay, you’re working, taking care of the kids and the household, but something doesn’t feel right. And in spite of all that’s good in your life, in spite of counting your blessings, it’s still hard. Right – nobody said life was supposed to be easy. But is it supposed to be hard?

No, I tell myself. I’m just in a funk. I’m at a crossroads with my finished-but-still-unpublished book, unfulfilled with my day job, feeling like I’m between treading water and sometimes barely keeping my head above it. So when Nigel, who turns 15 next week, told me last night that his case manager at school said to ask me if he’s going to be getting his driver’s permit (what?!), I felt like I’d been hit by a wall of water.

I didn’t know this was coming, although really, I did. I just didn’t know it would be this week. But what shocks me more is that I was just talking about this with my good friend Carrie less than a week ago. (Got Carrie? If not, head on over there immediately. You’ll be glad you did.) I was telling her how I didn’t know how to tell my son that he’s not ready to drive yet, in spite of how much he wants to. I told her how I’ve been putting it off, not sure how to approach it, foolishly thinking I still had some time. And then, something amazing happened, as it usually does when we’re with someone who listens and understands. Out of my mouth tumbled, “Maybe he just needs to hear it from me” or something along those lines. And I knew that I had to have the talk with him soon. I just didn’t get it together quick enough. So, I copped out. Last night, as I had three different dinners cooking at once while he stood there expectantly, I said, “Maybe in a few months.” I just couldn’t do it right then.

Because last night my other son needed me more. Last night Aidan was still recuperating from a vaccine reaction. Yes, I said it. I’m going there. He had his 13-year physical two days ago (a couple months late, but oh well), and the nurse spouted off at least four different vaccinations or boosters that he “needed.” We decided to go with one – the meningitis. It was the one that I felt strongest about, so we took it. Then I dropped him back off at school and I went back to work. In less than an hour, Aidan told me later, his arm was numb, and he had a headache and abdominal pains. My poor sweet boy didn’t want to disturb me at work, so he suffered through it at school and told me when he got home. He slept badly that night, still experiencing the same problems. He stayed home from school the next day, and by that evening (last night), he was feeling better (although his arm still felt strange).

I went in Aidan’s room to talk to him before he went to sleep, as I do every night. I’d had an epiphany, and I wanted to share it with him. My younger son has sensory processing disorder – gustatory, olfactory, tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular (worse than Nigel in all of these areas). And when Aidan was a baby, he cried almost constantly – but it didn’t start until he was two months old. That was when he received his first round of what turned out to be no less than 16 vaccinations by the age of 18 months. (By comparison, I’d received 6 vaccinations by the time I was 18 months. I guess I should consider myself lucky to be alive, as undervaccinated as I was.)  Aidan knows that he was a crier. He’s heard the war stories. But, as I told him last night, now we know why. I think that it took months for his little body to assimilate the vaccines, and by the time he got through one round, it was time for another, and then another. His body was flooded, overwhelmed. And I believe that experience contributed to his sensory processing disorder.

Maybe I’m reaching. Maybe it’s my funk. I don’t think vaccines are bad. But once I made that connection with Aidan’s babyhood, I felt like I’d solved a 13-year mystery. And Aidan agreed with me; both of us achieved some closure. As I left his room, I blew him kisses from the doorway, as I do every night. Often he blows them back to me. Last night, I shut the door and stood in the hallway a moment. I heard him continue to blow kisses to me even after the door was shut.

I can only hope that when I approach Nigel about the driving issue that I can word it in such a way that he can understand.  I don’t want him to see it as a punishment, as a wall of water crashing down on him. I hope that what I discussed with Carrie turns out to be right – that he just needs me to tell him. Maybe once I talk with him and get it all out on the table, I’ll feel better. Free, even. Free of the funk.  

To Drive or Not to Drive

M at Incipient Turvy, one of the blogs I love and read regularly, recently commented on my stuffed animal post. The thought of him searching strange word combinations to try to find Teen Autism gave me an idea for a new series of posts:  Sunday Searches. Each week I’ll write a post about a search that was used to find this website. I’ve already got a list going from months ago. Some are funny, some are serious. And some of them are really worth discussing.

Here’s this week’s search: “autistic teen does not want to drive a car”

First off, that’s probably a good thing. I wish Nigel hadn’t started talking about wanting to drive. I’m fine with him driving go-karts, but about a year ago, he started talking about when he turns sixteen and gets his driver’s license. Like he’s assuming it’s going to happen. Two years from now? I don’t think so. He gets distracted enough while just walking down the street, let alone operating a moving vehicle down the street. He has this idea in his head that if he can physically drive the car and knows the mechanics of it that he should be able to have his license. About six months ago, he reached in the glove box and pulled out the car manual and said, “I need to start studying this so that I can get my driver’s license when I’m sixteen.” Fortunately we were still in the driveway or I might have driven off the road in sheer panic.

Of course, there are autistic adults who drive. Temple Grandin, who drives, has said this about the subject: “I think it’s difficult for many people on the autism spectrum to drive because there is so much going on at the same time and so much to pay attention to at once.  For people on the spectrum who want to drive, I recommend a full year of driving on easy roads with no traffic before venturing out on freeways and busy intersections.  Once you don’t have to think about steering, braking or pushing on the gas, it’s much easier to multitask on busy roads.”

I suppose that when Nigel’s emotional age catches up, I might consider letting him learn to drive. His current emotional age is about eight, even though cognitively he is at or above his actual grade level. So since he’s about six years behind emotionally, I figure that in about seven or eight years he will reach the emotional age of 16 (when he’s in his early twenties). Then we’ll look at his sensory processing, his maturity, and we’ll entertain the idea of him possibly getting his driver’s license. Until then, go-karting will have to do. And I’ll just keep wishing that our local Family Fun Center offered frequent driver rates.