Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are reluctant to pursue driving because of concerns about their ability to drive safely. This study aimed to assess differences in simulated driving performance in young adults with ASD and typical development, examining relationships between driving performance and the level of experience (none, driver's permit, licensed) across increasingly difficult driving environments.
Participants included 50 English-speaking young adults (16–26 years old) with ASD matched for sex, age, and licensure with 50 typically-developing (TD) peers. Participants completed a structured driving assessment using a virtual-reality simulator that included increasingly complex environmental demands. Differences in mean speed and speed and lane variability by diagnostic group and driving experience were analyzed using multilevel linear modeling.
Young adults with ASD demonstrated increased variability in speed and lane positioning compared with controls, even during low demand tasks. When driving demands became more complex, group differences were moderated by driving experience such that licensed drivers with ASD drove similarly to TD licensed drivers for most tasks, whereas unlicensed drivers with ASD had more difficulty with speed and lane management than TD drivers.
Findings suggest that young adults with ASD may have more difficulty with basic driving skills than peers, particularly in the early stages of driver training. Increased difficulty compared with peers increases as driving demands become more complex, suggesting that individuals with ASD may benefit from a slow and gradual approach to driver training. Future studies should evaluate predictors of driving performance, on-road driving, and ASD-specific driving interventions.