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22 Navigating More Than Just The Road

Obtaining my driving licence was honestly one of the most arduous processes I have ever had to endure. Driving lessons would leave me completely exhausted; I failed my test on three occasions, and with each obstacle, I resigned myself to the fact that driving just wasn’t going to be for me.

 

In recent years, conversations with the neurodivergent community have opened my eyes. Many share a similar sentiment. In fact, for numerous neurodivergent individuals, their experience of learning to drive has been fraught with anxiety and difficulty. Even after passing the test, driving remains a continual challenge for many of us.

 

So why is it so challenging? Well, as you are probably used to me saying, every individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, so it is hard to come up with one concrete explanation. However, as navigating driving involves a whole host of skills, I have combined research with my own personal experience to curate an amalgamation of factors, ranging from sensory processing challenges to difficulties with executive functioning and motor coordination skills.

 

Sensory Challenges and Distractions

 

Without realising it, I would book driving lessons on days when I had a clear schedule. Breaking down this thought process, I understood that driving was very demanding and thus would leave me exhausted. In terms of sensory overload, I found driving to be a nightmare.


Within the car: the hum of the engine, the tens of buttons, the tick of the indicator—the list could go on. Every small sound and movement within the vehicle adds to the cacophony of sensory input. The constant need to monitor the dashboard, adjust mirrors, and stay aware of the speedometer creates a persistent low-level stress that can quickly become overwhelming.

 

Externally, the experience is no less daunting. The brightness of the sun can be blinding, making it difficult to see the road ahead, while the glare from nightlights or the headlights of oncoming traffic can be just as disorienting. The unpredictable movement of other vehicles requires constant vigilance and rapid response, which is mentally exhausting. The blaring sound of a car horn can jolt you out of concentration, adding to the stress.

 

The overwhelming number of road signs, each demanding attention and quick comprehension, creates a mental overload. Navigating through traffic lights, with the anxiety of waiting for them to change colour, adds another layer of stress. Each traffic light feels like a mini countdown, a test of patience and timing, like a ticking time bomb.


Furthermore, the sensation of motion itself can be disconcerting. The vibrations of the car, the changing speed, and the turns and twists of the road all contribute to a sensory experience that is anything but calm. The constant need to anticipate and react to the environment is exhausting, and for those of us who are particularly sensitive to sensory input, it can be an insurmountable challenge.

 

These sensory inputs can also act as distractions. As an AuDHD individual (both autism and ADHD), I find that staying focused while driving is also difficult. There are four categories of driving distractions – visual, auditory, cognitive, and manual [Dohman Law Group, 2023].

 

Visual distractions are stimuli that take your visual field away from the direction of the road. These can be things like billboards, a person on the street, or if you are as animal-obsessed as me, a pretty bird or cute dog on the pavement. For autistic individuals, visual distractions can be challenging due to hypersensitivity to the multitude of sensory stimuli. This can make it difficult to focus on the road ahead.

 

Auditory distractions are noises that take away our concentration from driving. Phone notifications, loud music, and distressing sounds (like other car horns) all act as auditory distractions, leading to sensory overload. Additionally, for those with ADHD, our brains can find it hard to filter out these irrelevant noises, making it difficult to focus on important sounds.

 

Cognitive distractions occur when a driver’s attention is diverted as our mind wanders elsewhere. For individuals with ADHD, this can be very common. Personally, it is what I experience most. Without realising it, my mind will have wandered elsewhere, and a few minutes later, I will realise I am no longer fully focused on the road. Cognitive distractions are particularly problematic for individuals with ADHD due to the brain's natural tendency to shift focus quickly and frequently. The struggle to maintain sustained attention can lead to dangerous lapses in concentration. Conversely, my mind can become fixated on a particular thought or detail, making it difficult to stay present in the driving task.

 

Manual distractions involve the driver taking one or both hands off the wheel. This commonly occurs when the driver is attempting two tasks at once: driving while eating, driving while texting, or something else. Whilst I, as an autistic individual, like to follow rules and prefer not to take any hands off the wheel, the impulsivity of ADHD can sometimes be overpowering. In fact, adults with ADHD are more likely to get a traffic ticket or crash their cars. Research has found that newly qualified drivers with ADHD are 36% more likely to end up in car accidents [Curry, et al., 2017].

 

Motor Coordination and Executive Functioning

 

In addition to sensory challenges and distractions, motor coordination and executive functioning difficulties are significant hurdles for neurodivergent individuals when it comes to driving. These aspects are often less understood but can be just as impactful.

Motor coordination involves the physical ability to control and move the body effectively. I find that the manual aspects of driving are particularly challenging. My two biggest struggles when actually driving are using the car pedals and staying in the middle of my lane. While they may sound simple to those of you who find driving easier, let me elaborate.

 

I learned to drive in a manual car, and it took me an extended period to be able to coordinate both my feet to synchronously work to press the relevant pedals. By this, I mean understanding when to release the clutch and change gears or press the accelerator while releasing the brake. Hyposensitivity, which is a reduced sensitivity to sensory input, can also play a role. This can make it difficult to feel how hard I am pressing the brake, leading to either pressing it too hard or not hard enough. Similarly, I struggled to release the clutch slowly, resulting in jerky movements and a stalled engine. Moreover, the lack of muscle tone in the small intrinsic muscles that control these careful movements adds another layer of difficulty. These muscles require precise coordination and strength, which can be a challenge for individuals with motor coordination difficulties.

 

Staying in the middle of the lane requires continuous fine motor adjustments and spatial awareness, both of which can be impaired in neurodivergent individuals. A lot of my concentration while driving is dedicated to maintaining my lane position. My spatial awareness is not always reliable—I frequently bump into objects and often end up covered in bruises. Additionally, I struggle to estimate distances, weights, and ages by sight alone. When driving, this challenge is amplified because I must consider the size of the car, not just my physical body. I worry that sometimes I focus too intensely on staying in my lane, as I am aware I am not the best at it, and this hyperfocus can decrease my overall awareness of the road.

 

Executive functioning involves the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks successfully. For those with ADHD, executive functioning challenges can make it difficult to organise driving-related tasks and maintain consistent attention. This can manifest as difficulty in planning routes, remembering directions, or even managing the timing and sequence of actions required to drive safely.

 

Planning journeys can be particularly anxiety-provoking for several reasons. Firstly, driving on new roads introduces unexpected obstacles that I am bound to encounter. Secondly, estimating travel times is challenging, often causing me to leave much earlier than necessary to avoid being late. I also frequently forget to check fuel levels, leading to panic when my car is low on fuel and I need to quickly find the nearest petrol station.


Driving requires quick decision-making as road conditions can change unexpectedly. Executive dysfunction can slow down these processes, making it hard to respond appropriately to sudden hazards or leading to decision paralysis. For example, when driving behind a slow-moving truck, I often feel overwhelmed by the decision to change lanes, overtake, or be patient. This indecision can result in doing nothing, sometimes frustrating my passengers. Additionally, when I make a decision that I later deem to be the “wrong one” or “least efficient,” I tend to ruminate, which can be distracting, further raise my anxiety levels, and reduce my confidence.

 

Tips and Tricks

 

While driving is all about practice, and it definitely helps to clock in hours and feel comfortable with the car and the roads you are driving on, it may be the case that, like me, driving will always be a skill I find difficult. Nevertheless, understanding what makes it challenging can help to create strategies to mitigate or reduce these challenges.

 

Limiting distractions

 

  • When I am driving, I put my phone in driving mode, meaning that phone notifications are disabled.

  • I ensure to decide on a music playlist before I start driving, so I am not distracted whilst driving.

  • I keep my sunglasses in my car so that if the light interferes with my driving, they are easily accessible.

  • Making a checklist of pre-driving tasks (including those I have mentioned above) can be useful.

 

Planning

 

  • Making sure you are familiar with the car before driving, or if it is unfamiliar to you, going for a brief introductory drive with a person you are comfortable with as practice. Driving in Dubai is on the opposite side of the road to the UK, so when I return to Dubai, I go for a short drive with my dad just so I can familiarise myself with everything before setting off on my own.

  • Being as familiar as possible with your route. If I am driving to a new place, I will have a look at the Google Maps route before I set off on my journey, so the route is a bit more familiar.

  • If you are undertaking long journeys, it may be worth planning stops and making sure you schedule regular breaks to stretch your legs as well as give your brain some downtime.

 

Other tips

 

  • It may not be feasible, but I have found driving an automatic car to be easier than a manual car, as there is less motor coordination required.

  • Don’t be embarrassed if driving is not for you. Driving took me much longer than my peers to complete, and whilst I did eventually obtain my licence, I have been honest with my family about the challenges I face. This means I will rarely drive if someone else is available to, but I am happy to drive short distances on routes I am familiar with.

 

Conclusion

 

Ultimately, driving is a skill that varies greatly from person to person. It is essential to recognise that driving may take longer to master and may never become entirely stress-free, or it may be a task that you feel uncomfortable with. For some, it may even be okay to decide never to drive. Driving can present unique challenges for neurodivergent individuals, encompassing sensory processing difficulties, executive dysfunction, and motor coordination issues. These challenges can make the process of learning to drive and maintaining driving skills particularly daunting. However, understanding these obstacles and developing personalised strategies can significantly improve the driving experience. It is important to embrace your challenges, just as we do with our strengths.

 

Thanks for reading,

Nidhi :)


 

References

 

Curry AE, Metzger KB, Pfeiffer MR, Elliott MR, Winston FK, Power TJ. Motor Vehicle Crash Risk Among Adolescents and Young Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. JAMA Pediatr. 2017 Aug 1;171(8):756-763. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.0910. PMID: 28604931; PMCID: PMC5710634.


Dohman Law Group. (2023). What are the 4 types of distractions while driving? Retrieved from https://dohmanlaw.com/types-of-distractions-while-driving/

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Oliver Nash
Oliver Nash
Jul 05

Very interesting read, thanks Nidhi - Ollie

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