Friday 12 February 2021

Why I don't drive


Autistic people can be perfectly good drivers. Some recent research shows that they are, if anything, safer than non-autistic drivers (with thanks to @AnnMemmott). But I am one of those autistic people who chooses not to drive. The world is a better and safer place without me driving in it!

I was 26 years of age when it occurred to me that I should learn to drive. I had resisted it at a younger age, explaining away my objection as a deep dislike of cars. In fact, I had a problem with the whole idea of bodies in motion and not knowing exactly where the edges of things are.

By the time I reached my mid-20s, this became too hard a position to maintain, both to myself and others. I felt that everybody else was driving so I really should learn to do it too. This was a mistake.

I passed my test first-time without a problem. I am extremely good at following rules and giving the appearance of being in control of the situation. Driving seemed to be all about that. I learned the highway code, found out what was expected of me, and performed very well during the test. No problem, right? Wrong!

First there were the intrusive thoughts. Noticing details all the time. For example, as a passenger I had this habit of memorising number plates. Now as a driver, I was taking my eyes off the road to read the plates. The same went for the patina of paint on road surfaces, the alignment of painted lines, any text on any vehicle (hyperlexia), and a hundred and one other distractions. 

Then there was the perturbation created by rule-breaking. Any driver knows that you have to bend rules sometimes for safety’s sake. Some, even most, break rules just because they feel like it! I would notice every infringement but worse I was incapable of breaking rules myself. This was highly dangerous in some situations.

Next was getting overwhelmed at junctions. As I approached the junction, I would start to anticipate it by imagining the various other roads that intersect that junction. I would then imagine the roads connected to those roads and their junctions. And so on and so on until my brain was occupied by an entire map of the local road network. Meanwhile, I was not paying any attention to the vehicles around me.

Another problem was literal interpretations. For example, there used to be a sign at yellow-hatched crossroads that said “enter only when box is clear”. Now I know that that referred to the entire hatched area, but my mind would not get past the idea that each small parallelogram was a tiny box and I should enter each one separately. To overrule this idea was exhausting. I had to try to drive smoothly when my instinct was to stop and start at every box.

Navigation was also always a major problem. I would memorise the route map before setting out (even on very small journeys) but would be unable to cope if the route was changed for some reason. I can remember shutting down on a major road, for example and even deliberately driving the wrong way up a one-way street when I thought that it would get me back onto my envisaged route. Big conflict with rule-breaking there.

Finally, I should mention the overwhelming sensory aspects, with lights, noise, colours, and objects in motion. The combination of these frequently became too much when overlaid on the sense of responsibility for others. This combined with my dislike of unclear borders to complete what was a highly over-stimulating environment. 

To anybody else, it looked as though I was driving just fine, but the truth of the danger of all this was brought home to me when I had a minor accident at a junction. There were suddenly no road markings (I think they were resurfacing) and I found myself completely without rules to follow, at which point the habitual confusion I experienced at any junction took over completely leading to bad decision-making that ignored the physical realities all around me. I’m just glad nobody was hurt.

I gave up driving six months after I started. Several years later, I remarked to my mother that I thought I might take it up again. She shuddered and said “it’s probably best if you don’t do that”. The world is a safer place for that advice!