Program to tackle Asperger's driving difficulties

By Lindy Kerin March 26, 2010
Sydney University has set up a specialized program to help people with Asperger's syndrome - a form of autism spectrum disorder that affects communication skills and coordination - learn how to drive safely.

Like most young men in their early twenties, Daniel Hammond is keen for the independence that comes with a driving licence.

"I'll be able to drive myself to my social activities, and it will help with getting a job and it'll just give me the confidence that I can drive somewhere without mum having to drive me there," he said.

Like many learner drivers, his first teacher was his mum. But those lessons did not go so well.

"It was a bit stressful because she knew a lot about me but I think she just didn't know how to teach me," he said. "In lane changing because you've got to decide when to lane change and you're moving a car at the same time and turning your head. So there are a lot of different movements at once."

It is a common experience for people with Asperger's syndrome who often experience increased anxiety.
Beth Cheal, an occupation therapist and the director of the University of Sydney's driver rehabilitation unit, says it is difficult for people with Asperger's syndrome to coordinate their movements while driving.

"It can be difficult for someone with Asperger's for their arms to cross the middle of their body, their midline," she said. "So that means, for example, steering a steering wheel can be hard and it can be really hard to coordinate that. So if someone with Asperger's goes out on the road and has a lot of difficulty in those areas, they can really lose confidence and give up."

'Patience' is the key
Ms Cheal is involved in a new program to help people with Asperger's syndrome get their license. The first step is a three-hour assessment in which applicants undergo tests for their eyesight, physical health and learning skills. Then, the learner drivers have 25 one-hour lessons.

"Just drive around the car park for the first lesson because if you take someone like that out onto Parramatta Road, you'll never get them back in a car," she said. Ms Cheal says many program participants start slowly and Daniel Hammond was no exception. When we saw Daniel he pretty much could only stay in one street and we had to focus a lot on just using the brake and accelerator and just very simple turning," she said. "Early on if you looked at him you would have thought 'here's someone who's really going to struggle with driving, will they ever get there? With a few special techniques and a bit of patience, now he's just a beautiful driver and just about to pass his RTA test."

Dean McMillan is one of the programs driving instructors and has worked in rehabilitation services for 20 years.

"It's more just being very patient, very consistent with what you're teaching, keeping little, baby steps of teaching so you're not being too complicated and throw in too much information," he said.

Only about half the people taking driving tests pass the first time round.  The university's chair of occupational therapy, Professor Anita Bundy, says this program is aiming at similar or better results.

"It's very important for us to understand whether or not what we're doing is effective," she said. “It's stressful for everyone to get a licence and it's more stressful for people with Asperger's and any sort of disability. But on top of that, we need to be really clear about what is effective and what is not effective and is what we're doing more effective than sending someone to just a regular driving school?"

Daniel Hammond will make his second attempt at getting a licence soon. He says driving alone will give him a great sense of achievement.

"It will take time and persistence but after a while you'll be able to become a good confidence driver and it'll be something you'll be proud of," he said.

He is hoping it will be second time lucky.