Thank you so much for having me on the panel this weekend.
Driving is certianly a stressful experience. To give some background on sensory overload, as an autistic person I have hyper senses. What I mean by that is I am unable to filter out background noise or regulate other senses. I can hear the fork scraping a plate on a table beside me at a restaurant at the same volume as the person near to me that is speaking. For this reason, I often cannot hear my name in crowded places and have anxiety in locations that have a lot of input like grocery stores. I am extremely light sensitive both during the day and night.
Because of these sensory challenges, I had to learn how to accommodate while driving. When driving I can hear the tires of each car on the road which makes it hard to concentrate and often leads to stress. I drown this out by playing music which allows me to better focus. I also focus best when I do not have passengers because that requires me to process conversations as well as process my surroundings. This is why I do not listen to podcasts while driving because processing speech and the road is too much for me.
With light sensitivity, I avoid driving at night. During the day I am able to wear sunglasses to fix the problem, however at night there does not seem to be much of a solution. Headlights and streetlights are extremely painful for me and feel like I'm looking directly into the sun, making it hard to see. I try to not drive in the rain at night because of the glare and the processing of the windshield wiper going back and forth is often too distracting.
I also struggle greatly with spatial relations and directions. I honestly was most fearful of my lack of spatial relations when learning to drive. I cannot judge distances well, and have difficulty backing up in straight lines. Parking was a nightmare. To compensate, I practiced on country roads where there wasn't a lot of traffic and parking lots. My current car has a back up camera which judges distances for me. While driving I have learned to give extra follow space and also memorized the nonverbal language of the road, for example how to tell from the way a car is driving if it is about to cut you off or pull out. The road has its own nonverbal language.
To accommodate my weakness in directions, I always have a GPS with me. I also often print out physical directions from mapquest in case the GPS fails and I try to ride with someone if I don't know where I'm going. I use Google maps to pull satellite images of my destination before I leave if it somewhere new so that I know what to look for. I look at both the final destination and what is beside of it so that when I'm driving I can look for landmarks to ensure I'm in the right place. I also use this feature to check the parking situation. If I see it is a place with no parking lot I Google Map a parking lot location nearby ahead of time so I am not stress-fully trying to find one, or I find a way to carpool.
My biggest recommendation to those who are autistic learning how to drive is find little ways like this to accommodate yourself. Avoid rush hours, take back roads, and plan routes ahead of time. When learning to drive try to get a non-family member to help teach you as this can make the process easier for both you and your family. It was a non-family member that was able to teach me how to merge on the highway. Because he was a trusted friend but not my parent, we were both able to be calmer about the learning process and more objective.
Driving is definitely a learning curve for anyone. But know yourself and your needs and you can find ways to make it easier. If anxiety proves to be too much, I always also recommend carpooling and other methods of transportation when available.
It took me two tries to get my license. I passed the writing portion no problem, but was the spatial relations of parking, backing up, etc. that made it difficult to pass. I did however, obtain it, the key is to never give up and always keep finding ways to find alternative solutions to compensate for your weaknesses while playing to your strengths.