Ben's Road to a Driver's License
By the time Ben was a junior in high school, he’d seen his two older brothers get their driver’s licenses and drive to school for their last year of high school, and he set the same goal for himself.
Ben’s dad was supportive of Ben’s learning to drive, but his mom, Sandy admits that it took her a little longer to get on board. “I was pretty sure he could handle the technical aspects of driving, but worried about the problem solving required and dealing with the other drivers on the road,” she says.
So, as a family, they consulted Ben’s developmental pediatrician about his readiness to drive. Their doctor was willing to sign the forms required in the state of Pennsylvania for teens to obtain a permit, on the condition that he be evaluated by an independent driving instructor. “The driving instructor recommended that he work on getting better control of his ADHD before we proceeded, so we spoke with his doctor and adjusted his medications,” explains Sandy.
Ben applied for his permit and started studying the driver’s manual in anticipation of taking the computer test. He took advantage of cell phone apps that let him take practice tests, and took the practice test “many, many times”. Once he started to receive passing scores, Ben felt ready to take the official test and headed to the DMV. PennDOT gives test-takers the option of using headphones so that the questions can be read out loud. For Ben, this accommodation helped him to be sure he heard the question correctly.
“He returned from the DMV with the saddest face we had ever seen on him,” recounts his mom. “He had failed and felt the full weight of the failure and was ready to give up.” His family encouraged Ben to keep trying, and he went back to the DMV 6 more times until he finally passed on the 7th try. “He was so excited that he yelled loudly and was reprimanded by the DMV workers!”
With the hard-won learner’s permit in hand, the real work began. On weekends, Ben and his dad, Glenn, headed to an empty industrial park to start learning. The family also obtained driver training hours for Ben through Pennsylvania’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Those sessions took him out on the regular roads, with one important detail, says Glenn: “The instructor has a brake on his side of the car.”
As their driving practice progressed, their practice sessions began to focus more specifically on passing the road test. Glenn would take Ben to the location where the driver’s test was held so he could practice parallel parking using the barrels set up by the DMV. They practiced over 50 times until Ben could do it without assistance. They even followed one of the instructors (at a distance) as he was giving another student his exam, so they could know and be able to practice the exact exam route.
With support from his parents and driving instructor, Ben spent 2 years getting ready to drive and take his test. “We renewed his permit as needed but did not want to renew the permit a third time, because he would have to take the written test again,” explained Sandy. So, they had a deadline.
When the day came for Ben to take his test, Ben passed the test on his first try. ”We had never seen him so happy about an accomplishment,” says his mom. “He had worked so hard and persevered for so long.”
As a licensed driver, Ben started out driving alone on roads that he was most familiar with and routes that he knew well - work, church, and school. His parents say they get some peace of mind about his safety with an app called Life360 that lets them see where Ben is at all times. “This helps with our comfort and helps us not to worry because he often loves to stop and shop or eat with his newfound freedom,” says Sandy. They also set up clear boundaries. “He is not allowed to drive anyone other than family in the car, and for the first year of driving he was not allowed to use the radio.”
Ben has been driving for about 18 months now, with just one incident to report. About a month into driving alone, he needed to use the defroster and he tried to adjust the setting while the car was moving. He hit a curb and got a flat tire, but he appropriately called for help and it was a good learning experience for him, say his parents. As he gains more road experience, he has expanded his distance to include more highway driving and shown that he is able to be flexible when roads are closed or traffic patterns change.
Sandy says she has a harder time not worrying about Ben than Glenn does, but that it’s gratifying to see Ben loving his newfound freedom. Plus, “I have so much more time on my hands now that I am no longer UBERmommy,” she jokes. “He loves being able to drive and the freedom that it brings. It has been life-changing for him and us as well.
Ben’s message to others who want to drive: “Never give up and keep on trying.”
Do you know a teen between the ages of 16-24 who is on the autism spectrum? We’d love to have them join CHOP’s new Autism ETA (Evaluating Transportation Among Adolescents) Study! The goal of this research is to understand more about how autistic teens, young adults, and their parents feel and make decisions about transportation, including driving. To learn how to participate, click here.