I never thought I could drive. That belief was reinforced by my parents, teachers, and everyone around me save a few stubborn musician friends who pushed me to practice driving without much success. I finally began working at it in my mid-20’s and found a fantastic private driving instructor who worked with me for many months. We’d do weekly lessons and in between them I took time to practice on my own before returning to the instructor for more work. The anxiety I felt was huge and I found myself drenched in sweat and gripping the wheel with white knuckles for many lessons.
Eventually, I’d progressed far enough along in my studies that it was time to start thinking about taking the big test. I began driving the roads near the DMV office regularly. I couldn’t predict which route I’d be tested on, but I could gain experience with every possible street, intersection, stop light, and turn within several miles of the office. When at last the test began, I was driving familiar streets. I wasn’t surprised by that one stop sign hiding behind a troublesome overgrown branch and had no trouble navigating the trickiest intersections. I passed the test and earned my first driver’s license a few months after my 27th birthday. Since then, I’ve made many road trips from Portland—both solo and with friends.
Driving opens up my world in many ways. It’s a small tool which makes my life just a little easier, and I’m lucky enough not to have to do it every day. The greatest challenge of driving for me, though, is one we don’t usually talk about: driving is a social activity. It requires reading others around you, guessing how they’ll act, and understanding the rules aren't always black and white.
For instance, signs on the freeway clearly say the speed limit’s 55 miles per hour. But if you take that literally and make sure to drive at 54 MPH, you’re likely to be followed by a lot of annoyed motorists! Every time we change lanes, we take a moment to read the people around us. Did we make eye contact? Are they paying attention? Are they aware of our presence? Are they really going to let us over, or are they going to make sure we can’t change lanes, regardless of etiquette? When they do let us over, we often wave or make eye contact to acknowledge the favor. When we navigate a four-way stop or park in a busy lot we often use eye contact and social cues to determine the safest course of action.
We often assume that being a driver means we have all the tools we need to handle any situation at any time and that, other than the law, our ability to drive should have no limits. Having a license, however, does not mean one HAS to drive between four and six in the evening. Or take the freeway. Or drive at night. Or, for that matter, during the day! There is no rule that says one has to take road trips, drive across town, or venture beyond the comfortably familiar streets near home.
The only legal limit on our driving is our ability to do so safely, which we prove by passing the state driver’s test. But that does not mean we cannot observe personal limits of our own in order to make driving a less intimidating experience. My state of Oregon tests us on our ability to drive various types of streets at different speeds, navigate stop signs and traffic lights, and the ability to park next to a curbs and inside the spaces of parking lots. But parallel parking is not on that test, and after driving for four years it’s still a skill I have not acquired. And that’s OK.
I believe many people who fear driving would feel less anxiety about it if they told themselves “I never have to drive on the freeway. I never have to drive in rush hour. I can choose where, when, and how I drive and whether I want to do so alone or with a friend or family member in the car.” By looking at driving as both a social skill and a tool we can control in both use and scope, I’ve come to believe many people are more capable drivers than they think they are. Driving isn’t the right option for everyone, and there are several challenges that can create barriers for people on spectrum, but there’s more than one way to look at being a licensed driver.