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Learning to Drive

Matt really wants his independence.  Working toward this goal is a huge undertaking.  So far, Matt does his own laundry, cooks his own meals, does pretty good in the area of personal hygiene (but needs work), and keeps his rooms fairly clean.  He is able to grocery shop, keep track of his expenses, and is currently attempting email communication.  That last one is difficult as Matt is just not much of a communicator – he’s autistic.

 Yet, if Matt is to live an independent life he must be able to get where he needs to go and that means either learning to take a bus, a cab, a subway or drive himself.  We live in a very rural area of Virginia - there are no buses, subways, or cabs. That means Matt needs to learn to drive. When he was a junior in high school he took Driver’s Education and did real well on the written part of the test. Putting him behind the wheel however, was not even considered.  Matt just was not ready for such a big step.  He’s ready now, 7 years later.  Our first consideration was where to take him.  We decided on an old, secluded, and basically abandoned outlet mall to let him practice driving - away from other traffic and distractions.  Teaching Matt to drive is not the same as teaching a regular child to drive but it is similar.  The main difference is how long it takes.  Each step is a lesson in patience and practice.  For those that have taught their normal children to drive I salute you.  Teaching a child to drive – any child – is scary.  Now, take that feeling and multiply it times 10 and you get close to how it is with an autistic child. 

Matt has a routine. He gets behind the wheel and checks his mirrors.  He fastens his seat belt and turns the key.  He sits a moment in silence, feeling the hum of the motor and psyching himself up for the practice run.  He turns, slowly, deliberately, to look over his shoulder, positioning his right arm to the side and placing his hand on the passenger seat. He puts the car in reverse and backs out of the parking space –at a snails pace.  Once accomplished, a whispered sigh of relief slips out and he faces forward.  We sit a few seconds as he mentally prepares to go again.  Matt puts the car in drive and applies the gas.  We creep along to the end of one small parking lot and he steps on the brake.  My body is jerked forward, then back.  “Good job, Matt” I say as calmly as I can, “Now let’s turn right and go up the hill”.

For our first several practices Matt never got above 5 mph.  Then one day as we slowly climbed the hill I encourage him to go faster – all the way up to 20 mph.  His foot pressed down a little bit and slowly we climbed to 20mph.  He looks down to watch the speedometer and forgets to watch where he is going.  I gently remind him to look at the road.  He is startled by the revelation that he forgot to watch where he is going and I could see a frown start to form.  He gets upset with himself for making a mistake, for not being perfect. 

Each time we go, Matt practices parking, backing up, driving forward, using his turn signals, and by the end of the session he is on top of the world.  Each time Matt parks the car he jumps out to admire his new found skills.  If he is between the lines and pleased with himself, his facial expression is one of triumph and he juts his fists into the air as if to say, “YES!”  If not, his brow deepens and he mutters to himself – no doubt scolding himself for not having done better.   It’s a slow processas he his cautious and nervous and trying desperately to be perfect. 

I really hadn’t given much thought about his autism other than the slow pace at which we were progressing – that is not until a bee flew in the window.  Matt has always hated flying insects – so much so that he hates going outside for any length of time.  He has a real fear of bees.  No, Matt has never been stung, but his fear is so intense that one would think so. I was abruptly reminded of this fear when the bee appeared. Matt was slowly driving down one of the parking lanes when out of nowhere a bee flew in his window and immediately flew back out again.  In that split second, Matt took both hands off the wheel, covered his face and unbelievably, kept his foot on the gas. Matt had lost all focus.  The car was out of control.  “Matt, BRAKE!” His foot stomped the brake.  “Hands on the wheel!” His hands went to wheel. He stopped the car and sat there visibly shaking.  Matt was surprised at what he had done and continued to shake.  His mind was racing and I could see he was angry at himself.  Matt hates it when he is not perfect.  I could almost hear his thoughts . . ."Loosing control of the car for even a split second is unacceptable . . . and wrong.  How could I make such an awful mistake?"  His expression of disgust told me he was berating himself mentally.  It took a few minutes of gentle conversation to calm him down. “O.K., Matt, we know that you will need to keep your windows rolled up.”  I said. “If you’re in traffic and a bug flies in you have to remain calm or you’ll cause an accident, so to not have that happen you will need to keep your window up, OK?”  That must have sounded reasonable to him as he began to calm down.

We continued to practice before calling it quits for the day.  I wanted Matt to end his driving session on a high note – not on the mistake he had made.  I waited until he had parked the car perfectly between the lines, jumped out and thrust his hands in the air in triumph – the sign that he was pleased with himself again.  A few days later when we went on our next practice drive, the first thing Matt did was roll up his window (and simultaneously let out a small “whew”). 

Teaching Matt to drive is emotionally difficult.  I thought I had thought of all the “what ifs”. What if he hits a deer, or runs off the road, or has a flat tire, or runs out of gas, or pulled over by a police car or his car breaks down.  Unfortunately, I never thought “what if a bug flies in the window”.  Still, with all the hurdles we must get over we have to start somewhere.  This is going to take a very long time –possibly years.  And as much as it scares me, as much as I want to hold him close and protect him, I know I must let him have his chance to be free and independent. 

I keep in mind every day that each driving session, each small lesson learned is one step closer to the day he becomes independent.  I just hope my nerves can stand it.



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