Can people on the spectrum drive? Not just anecdotes about individuals who can or can't, what about some meaningful data about how we cope behind the wheel?
Professor Torbjorn Falkmer is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University's School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work. He's behind a study looking specifically at autism and driving.
"We are going to ask parents, driving instructors and persons with ASD about their viewpoint on driving and autism experiences," Professor Falkmer explains. That will be followed by some cognitive testing relevant to driving, and then participants get behind the wheel: first in a driving simulator, and then for real on a pre-defined route around the Curtin campus in Perth.
All the while, researchers will be collecting data on how their subjects perform, how they handle the hazards, distractions and multi-tasking that come with driving, and how they read and respond to social cues while motoring. Part of that involves collecting eye tracking data, so researchers can
monitor what their participants were looking at, and for how long.
Getting your drivers licence is a rite of passage, especially in country areas where your opportunities and movements are severely restricted if you can't drive yourself around. Prof. Falkmer says this research could help train and assess the next generation of neurodiverse drivers.
"We would hope that insight into and establishing the evidence for the driving performance in adolescent drivers with ASD may assist in development of more reliable and accurate tools for assessing drivers with autism," he says.
"The study may also help to inform clinicians about appropriate training strategies to improve drivers’ behaviours and to enable safe driving.
"By exploring and understanding facilitators and barriers of driving ability in individuals with autism we can hopefully enhance their strengths and work on improving areas of concerns to facilitate the independence by enabling more persons with autism to manage to get their driving licence."
Driving is a very visual exercise: a big part of it is keeping an eye on the road and responding to what you see. And being a 'visual thinker' is often talked about as being an autistic trait. (Temple Grandin, for instance, has written eloquently and at length about how she thinks and understands the world visually.) So, visual thinkers taking on a visual task should be a recipe for success, right?
There's a difference between thinking visually and being able to handle a highly visual task in real time. As for whether people on the spectrum tend to be better at picking up and processing visual information, the short answer is we just don't know.
"If there is a general superiority in people with autism when it comes to attending to visually presented details is still not conclusively proven," Professor Falkmer says. "Some studies report that such superiority exists, some have not been able to find it. So maybe a good summary is to say that we still do not know enough about visual perception in autism."
Many thanks to Professor Torbjorn Falkmer and Susanna Wolz from Curtin University for their time and help.