Home » Australia Questions Whether Those With Autism Are Fit To Drive, Scaring People Away From Seeking Diagnosis

Australia Questions Whether Those With Autism Are Fit To Drive, Scaring People Away From Seeking Diagnosis

Autism Australia Ts2
ADVERTISEMENT

Australia might have an image overseas as the Land of the Larrikins, but many that live Down Under will tell you it’s a hard-nosed nation obsessed with rules and order. The country has some of the strictest road rules in the world, and harsh penalties for those that break them. In a recent example, 2022 saw the country introduce new driving fitness standards that put autistic drivers under the spotlight. It’s already had a chilling effect on many, and has raised questions about just how the country plans to treat neurodivergent drivers differently from everybody else.

As reported by Australian government-funded outlet ABC News, it all stems from the 2022 update to the national Assessing Fitness To Drive standards. Austroads is the government association of Australian and New Zealand transport agencies, which develops these guidelines for the nation in partnership with the National Transport Commission (NTC). In recent years, the NTC had received submissions requesting standards for assessing medical standards for drivers with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Previously, the NTC noted that people with “intellectual or other disabilities” were allowed to take standard driving tests which were adequate to “determine their suitability to hold a license.” However, with the updated guidelines, autism is now listed as a condition that “should be assessed individually,” potentially putting thousands of individuals and their right to drive in question.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The new guidelines apply nationally but are subject to the interpretation of Australia’s individual states. This leads to varying standards depending on one’s location. Queensland, for example, requires drivers with an autism diagnosis to obtain a doctor’s clearance to drive via a medical form. Failing to do this can attract a monumental $9,288 fine ($6,146 USD) and loss of license. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Transport and Main Roads, the state was ahead of the curve, enacting this policy in 2012. Meanwhile, Western Australia requires disclosure of an autism diagnosis, too, with fines of $500 ($330 USD) for those that don’t notify the Department of Transport. The situation is murkier in other states. New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania all have a requirement for notification of any health condition that could impact someone’s ability to drive, but don’t outright classify autism in this category. The Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory similarly follow this template.

The problem staring the bureaucracy in the face is that many drivers with autism have held licenses for years without major incident. They passed the standard driving tests and took to the roads as any other. ABC News spoke to multiple drivers shocked at the changed guidelines. In the case of Barb from Queensland, she’s held a motorbike license since 18, and a car license since 30. To date, she says she’s had no parking or speeding fines during her whole driving life. In 2009, she received her autism diagnosis just before her 40th birthday. Despite this, she was unaware of Queensland’s rules for autistic drivers. “It’s pretty discriminatory as well, looking at this and devaluing us as to what our capabilities are based on, you know, a diagnosis,” she told ABC News. 

It’s a growing issue, too. Australia has seen significant growth in autism rates as the condition has become better understood and more adults have sought diagnosis.  In 2018, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported an estimated figure of 205,200 Australians with autism, a full 25.1% increase from 2015. The growth trend goes further back, too, with 2015’s figure up 42.1% compared to 2012. Further studies by researchers at the Australian National University have found an autism prevalence of 1 in 25 children in Australia, though is yet to be peer-reviewed. Some commentators have suggested the operation of Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has played a role in the growth in these figures.

ADVERTISEMENT
Driving
For thousands of Australians with autism, driving is simply a regular part of daily life.

However, the new spotlight on drivers with autism could have a chilling effect on those with a diagnosis or seeking a diagnosis, either for themselves or their children. The Autopian spoke to multiple Australian drivers on condition of anonymity to discover how this guideline change has affected individuals. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.

Kerry lives in New South Wales, and has been driving since the day they were able to secure their learner’s permit in 2011. “I’ve never lost a demerit point, nor been pulled over, despite driving every day,” Kerry told The Autopian. Despite a clean record, the new guidelines have them concerned. “The idea that I may have to jump through all of these hurdles to prove I’m a human is insulting and a terrifying outlook for the future.” Kerry notes that they have a very literal understanding of the road rules, which they believe makes them a better driver. “It makes me very literal and hyper aware of my surroundings which I view as a benefit,” says Kerry.

Ultimately, Kerry is aghast at the changes, but reluctant to go against the rules. “I will still disclose my diagnosis whenever that time comes but I’m utterly embarrassed and very upset that yet again, I’m treated as a lesser because of a lack of understanding,” Kerry told The Autopian.

Charlie in Western Australia has been driving since the age of 15, and is now in her thirties with no major accidents on her record. The changes are a serious concern for her, her family, and her livelihood. “I also hold a boat license and a commercial pilots license, and again, I would be concerned about my rights to hold those licenses,” says Charlie. “We have to pass the same driving tests as everyone else, why do we have to be held to a higher standard?”

Charlie has long suspected that she may be autistic and believes her eldest child may be as well. However, the new guidelines have her mind made up about seeking a diagnosis. “I already wasn’t going to get a diagnosis due to it potentially affecting my pilot’s license, but this sure helps affirm I won’t bother pursuing it,” Charlie told The Autopian, adding “My eldest child seems to be showing clear autistic traits too, but won’t be chasing a diagnosis for him either, given he desperately wants to be a pilot.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Australia’s status as a car-oriented society plays into this for Charlie, as well. “It’s really important for day-to-day life to have the independence and choice to be able to drive,” says Charlie.

Psychologists have already reported that people have ceased to pursue diagnoses in fear of the potential repercussions. The guidelines could lead to states stripping licenses from individuals, or force drivers to undergo costly additional medical reviews with expensive occupational therapy assessors. Some have already reported issues navigating a maze of red tape to keep their legal driving status after disclosing their diagnosis, despite holding a valid license for years.

Ultimately, there’s a serious question to be raised as to the validity of these guideline changes. Australian states set driving tests to determine whether or not an individual is fit to hold a license. If those tests are insufficient, they should be improved across the board. The guideline changes seem to indicate that there is some edge case where an autistic driver could pass a standard driving test, yet somehow be unfit to drive. That’s a curious conclusion for the authorities to make, particularly given the scores of drivers with autism who safely navigate our roads every day.

Australian drivers with autism now face a complicated quagmire ahead of them. Government bureaucracies are now exploring placing new conditions on their legal right to drive, while the industry of specialized occupational therapy driving assessors stands to expand greatly as thousands find themselves subject to new onerous assessments. In the absence of a grand statistic showing some new issue with drivers with autism, one has to wonder why this is being pursued to the detriment of so many.

Image credit: Bailey Mahon via Unsplash

ADVERTISEMENT
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
119 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scott Wangler
Scott Wangler
3 months ago

Rain Man shouldn’t drive.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
2 months ago
Reply to  Scott Wangler

Yes. No movie should drive, really.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
3 months ago

Late to this party, it seems, but as someone who went from being “the weird kid” to “probably somewhere on the spectrum” the more I researched it, I’ll echo the prevailing thought here: This is bullshit. Administer the driving test, issue a license (or don’t) based on the results, and let that be the end of it.

Besides, it’s starting to sound to me like the autism spectrum is a bit like the Kinsey scale anyway. Some people’s needles are firmly against one peg or the other, but most of us fall somewhere in the gray area, even if only a little. And neither one has a single damn thing to do with operating a motor vehicle.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
3 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Yeah I don’t want to downplay any of the experiences of legitimately autistic people, but I’m increasingly of the impression that the label is being taken too far with how much the definition of it is widening. I’ve met many people supposedly on the spectrum who seemed perfectly normal to me, and I never would’ve guessed there was anything different about them if they didn’t say anything. I’ve always felt like everyone is weird in their own ways even if they try to hide it, and a lot of what we label as autistic is actually just… well, throwing labels at a form of weird that’s different from the labeler’s own form of weird.

And the consequences of that include affecting the way people are able to live their lives. If society decides you’re not normal, and they start imposing restrictions on your life that make it essentially impossible to live a normal life, they’re basically eliminating the possibility of living a normal life if it turns out you could’ve been fine without said impositions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe I’m just a bit paranoid as someone who’s been labeled all manner of different things that it turns out I was not, and barely escaped unnecessary medications/treatments that would’ve fundamentally altered who I am now, for no good reason.

Mental health and understanding yourself is important, but sometimes I have to wonder if we’re going about it all wrong, because a lot of it sure feels pretty messed up.

Last edited 3 months ago by Austin Vail
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
3 months ago

Well, as the parent of an autistic 8 year old ( extremely high functioning, most people can’t tell she is on the spectrum) and the spouse of someone on the spectrum, I think this is shit. My wife got her diagnosis at 30, and my daughter got diagnosed at 4. Aussies, come to the US, we have wide open spaces out west not unlike Australia, and lots of roads as well. Car culture is huge here. Just do me a favor, bring the good beers, not just Fosters.

ProfessorOfUselessFacts
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
3 months ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Yeah, and it is not that good a beer. Just like Budweiser is the signature American beer overseas, but here in the states we have hundreds of craft breweries to choose from in each state.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
3 months ago

The driving test should be the driving test, if you pass you get to drive. If people who aren’t capable of driving to an acceptable standard are passing your test you either need a harder test or you’re in the US where making the test harder is something something freedom something something un-American.

I’ve got to teach my autistic nephew to drive (for the UK test) next year. Given how much he likes conforming to rules I think the hardest part is going to be getting him to understand that everyone else is not conforming.

As an aside: there were a lot of people quoted as saying they’ve never crashed, as though that is an indicator of good driving. I’ve never smashed a violin, that doesn’t make me a good violinist.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
3 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

That is my concern my kid follows the rules, how any other do?

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
3 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

Truer words were never spoken. 😉

Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

I have smashed a violin. I was at one time a good violinist.

It didn’t break, was in the case, but it did happen.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
3 months ago
Reply to  Myk El

All the F1 drivers have crashed a car. There is no correlation between being good at using a thing and never damaging that thing.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
3 months ago

That’s fked. Come on, mates, do better.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
3 months ago

Yep. Apart from the cost and difficulty of getting a diagnosis, here’s yet ANOTHER reason why I won’t be bothering, since I don’t want my Victorian car and motorcycle licences affected (wonder if they would do the same thing for my forklift licence?)

I’ve been fairly sure I would be diagnosed as being on the spectrum, since a lot of people I know who have been diagnosed were not surprised at all when I told them I thought I might be. Plus on the Cambridge Autism Research Centre’s online Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test (where a result over 32 out of 50 is meant to be a good indicator) I regularly score 42.

The problem I have with it is that whether you have a diagnosis or not, when you are tested for your licence the examiner is already testing if you can drive properly. If your autism doesn’t affect that, then there’s no problem. If it does, then you won’t pass. I see no need to separately assess whether it MAY affect your driving, if you can pass the test or have already passed it.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
3 months ago
Reply to  Morgan Thomas

When you said ‘Victorian car and motorcycle licenses’ my mind immediately went to some Victorian era steampunk type car.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
3 months ago

If the DMV is gonna screen potential new drivers via the DSM V I’d prefer they pay closer attention to anyone exhibiting signs of narcissism.

Passing everyone waiting patiently in the right turn lane, to block through traffic and merge into the right at the last second?
You know who you are. License revoked!

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
3 months ago

Then there’s the MDD sufferers who may be more likely to drive into oncoming traffic, the BPDs with road rage fueled murder sprees, the bipolars driving manically and depressedly, and the MADs driving anxiously. Or something.

This whole thing is a discriminatory crock based on ignorance and fear.

(Harvey Park may or may not be included in the populations mentioned in this thread).

Aaron
Aaron
3 months ago

That would put BMW out of business, overnight.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
3 months ago

“ Scaring People Away From Seeking Diagnosis”

Really? What people?

That reads like hyperbole to me.
The average age of an ASD diagnosis in modern society falls well below the age of people getting their drivers license. Sure there might be a few, but percentage wise it’s nothing worth writing headlines about.

Hell if they made it that far without anyone noticing some sort of somewhat alarming personality quirks and they pass the driving test…
give em their damn license.

If they (or their parents) haven’t looked into a diagnosis of some sort by the time they are old enough to stand in line at the DMV then I see no difference between someone living with ASD at that stage in life and the rest of us “regular” weirdos.

Oafer Foxache
Oafer Foxache
3 months ago

I’d much prefer they work on a series of tests to detect arseholeism… the roads would be a much nicer (and safer) place without them

119
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x