I’m Autistic and I won’t be proving I’m fit to drive

Since the ABC article ‘Autistic drivers could find their licences in legal limbo’ dropped last week, there has been the usual, and understandable, flurry of chatter online and in the media about what this all means for Autistic people who currently, or plan to, drive in Australia.

The sad thing is that it means many things – most of them bad.

Except when it comes to the driving part, which, ironically, hasn’t changed anything when it comes to an individual’s “fitness to drive”.

If you could drive without putting other motorists at risk last week, you can carry on doing so this week as well.

Let me repeat that: Nothing has changed when it comes to an Autistic person’s right to drive in Australia – despite what the media, and some others, would have you believe.

What did happen was that ‘Autism’ was added to the national ‘Assessing fitness to drive’ standards published in 2022.

But in my case, no one, I mean NO ONE, not even any of the health professionals I’ve seen during or since my own Autism diagnosis last year, knew about the addition, or if they did, it slipped all of their minds to mention it to me.

But in completing my own research (which took less than an hour – it wasn’t that difficult to find), I’ve learnt that it isn’t as gloomy a picture as some outlets and individuals would have you believe.

It’s all about the wording

In the more than 35 years that I’ve been driving (34 of them not knowing I was Autistic), I’ve never once received a speeding ticket or lost a single point because of any other traffic infringement.

Before I was even allowed to get my license my parents (wisely I realise in hindsight), had me undertake a defensive driving course, which at the time was run by the Queensland Ambulance Service.

Throughout my early twenties, it was often left to me to drive my friends everywhere because I was the only one who actually had a license, let alone a car.

I even spent years working in the toxic chambers that are underground carparks, parking the cars of government officials and business big wigs in the city, and got pretty good at reversing into tight spaces, and changing flat tyres.

When I get behind the wheel, therefore, I feel confident. Not recklessly so (I have a healthy respect for the road), but enough to know that I’m a decent driver.

I got my licence on my first try, just after I turned 17. I’m a good indicator, even on roundabouts. (Speaking of, can we all please get our collective act together when it comes to this one, please? Stop indicating right if you’re going straight ahead. And for the love of God use your indicator when you’re turning a corner. It isn’t difficult; all it takes is a simple flick of your finger.) And I can judge distance and speed, and time, pretty darn well.

That’s why, for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I won’t be notifying anyone at Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads about my ‘medical condition’.

Glenn sitting behind the wheel of a car, smiling for the camera, with a South Korean streetscape in the background
This is me driving in South Korea in 2019 – on the right side of the road. See, I’m Autistic and I can even drive on the wrong side of the road for me!

You see, despite what it says in several places online, including in the ABC article under the subheading ‘What are the rules in your state?’ with the wording: In Queensland, the Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) requires drivers to obtain a medical clearance form from a doctor confirming they are fit to drive despite being autistic (that’s their small ‘a’ in Autistic, not mine), I couldn’t actually find this “obligation” stated in the ‘fitness to drive’ standard, or on the Queensland Government or TMR websites. So I rang them to check.

The word from the horse’s mouth

The representative I spoke to told me (after I’d clarified why I found her using the acronym ASD instead of Autism and person-first instead of identity-first language offensive) precisely what I had been able to find. Namely, that you have to notify TMR “about any medical condition that is likely to adversely affect your ability to drive safely.”

But if it doesn’t affect your ability to drive, if you can drive safely, then it’s business as usual as far as they, and you, should be concerned.

So, if like me you’ve been driving for years without any problems, if you’re attentive, if you can follow some basic rules that are there to keep us all safe, if you know your accelerator pedal from the brake, then keep driving and don’t disclose a thing. Because you don’t have to, you are not compelled to, there is no law and nor should there ever be.

Autism, I discovered, has actually been on the list of self-reportable health conditions in Queensland since 2012. But, as I said earlier, not a single one of the five health professionals that I’ve worked with since learning that I’m Autistic has ever raised driving as an issue, most likely because, for me, it isn’t one.

And here’s a news flash: Just like the rest of the population, Autistic people are individuals, and as such some will be safe drivers, and some will not.

Some won’t be able to drive well because they have challenges with coordination and motor skills, while others might find the sensory aspects that come with driving all too much.

But, generally speaking, you will already know this about yourself – you won’t need some ‘standard’ to tell you who you are and whether or not you’re a safe driver.

If, however, you are unsure about your capabilities behind the wheel – maybe you’re younger and new to driving or you might not even have your driver’s licence yet – then I would recommend you go ahead and get an assessment, just to be sure.

I do, however, believe that any assessment should take the form of a functional capacity assessment, like the type many Autistic adults undertake when undergoing diagnosis or applying for disability support funding, like NDIS funding in Australia.

This type of assessment typically involves a range of testing that includes the:

  • WHODAS 2.0
  • Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function® Adult Version (BRIEF-A)
  • Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile
  • Comprehensive Executive Function Inventory Adult (CEFI Adult)

This range of testing, for anyone who isn’t sure about their ability to drive safely, is more than sufficient to accurately evaluate your capacity to do so.

In fact, a functional capacity assessment is useful for a variety of situations beyond driving, and costs much less than getting behind the wheel with an expensive ($1,500) occupational therapy driver assessor, to carry out an ‘Autism-specific’ on-road assessment.

If this was the only option available to Autistic people – essentially taking an additional driving test – then it would risk tipping the entire process for licensing registration into the realms of discrimination – especially given the amount of questionable driving I see on the road, committed by people who I dare say span the entire continuum.

What does the ‘Assessing fitness to drive’ standard actually say then?

The facts, ah, the simplicity of the facts. If only we humans could deal in those rare chestnuts. Well, in this case we can! They’re written down, you see, in language that really isn’t that difficult to understand.

And here they are, all set out in a natty little table:

A table that contains information about the medical standards for licensing of neurological conditions for drivers in Australia.
This, and much more information, is readily available for anyone to read on ‘Austroads’s’ website

What the ‘Assessing fitness to drive’ standard essentially says is that Autistic people (it uses the abhorrent and plainly inaccurate “people with ASD” language unfortunately – it isn’t a cold that’s going to go away people, it isn’t a disorder) may have difficulty with:

  • managing attention and distraction
  • understanding non-verbal communication from other drivers
  • planning and organisation of the driving task and adapting to unexpected change
  • sensory sensitivities (e.g. glare and sound)
  • emotional regulation and input overload
  • repetitive behaviours such as rocking or hand flapping

While some of those are downright insulting (really, ‘hand flapping’ while driving?) or incomprehensible (understanding non-verbal communication from other drivers isn’t even a thing, is it? unless they mean when someone flips you their middle finger, and I understand what that means!), I think these are traits that you could readily attribute to anyone, not only to Autistic people.

That aside, I do believe in a set of standards like those contained within the ‘Austroads’ publication, first published in its current form in 2003.

The Standard covers a range of medical conditions related to a person’s fitness to drive that include:

  • blackouts
  • cardiovascular conditions
  • diabetes
  • hearing loss and deafness
  • musculoskeletal conditions
  • neurological conditions (which is where Autism falls)
  • psychiatric conditions
  • sleep disorders
  • substance misuse
  • vision and eye disorders

I haven’t been through all of the information that relates to other health conditions, but when it comes to Autism, the problem with the Standards is that the information is either outdated, or based on limited studies that tend to relate to young people.

One quoted study focused on a cohort of only 22 teenagers with an average age of 15, who hail from the United States.

Hardly relevant to the context of adults driving in Australia. And more than a bit thin if you ask me.

So is this all just one big media beat up?

My answer is yes, largely, and unfortunately, it is.

The first question that popped into my head when I saw the ABC article appear in my news feed last Monday morning was: Why now?

Austroads released the ‘Assessing fitness to drive’ standards in June 2022, almost eighteen months ago. So why did the ABC sit on its story for so long?

I’m no conspiracy theorist. In fact, conspiracy theories drive me spare. But I am a cynic (it’s okay, I’m over 50), and the cynic in me wonders if the ABC timed the story’s release to coincide with both the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) review, and the formulation of a National Autism Strategy in this country, both ongoing as I type.

In Australia, ‘Autism’ lately has become a buzz word of sorts; an ethereal term that raises the ire of some, especially when they read headlines like ‘Australia’s record high autism rates ‘plausibly’ linked to NDIS’ and ‘Disability advocate hits back at ‘misleading’ claims that NDIS funding is incentivising autism diagnoses’.

(I explain more about recent increases in the numbers of Autism diagnoses, like mine, in my article ‘Myths and misinformation: setting the record straight on Autism’.)

Whatever the reasons for the ABC’s slow response to the release of the ‘Assessing fitness to drive’ standards (they may be innocent – I may be waaaay off, maybe), the simple fact is that their articles are misleading.

That they followed up the initial story with another story on the weekend, six days after the first, and highlighted a Queensland law called Jet’s law, further muddies their already sketchy credibility.

This is, in many ways, a non story masquerading as Moby Dick, with all sorts of Autistic people and health professionals, and other experts, interviewed to pad the whole thing out, and spark outrage, and concern, and get people talking about the ABC – like I’m doing right now! 😝

What this story is, is incredibly distressing to many Autistic people, with some now questioning whether it’s even worth pressing ahead with a potential life changing (and even life saving) diagnosis for fear of having to relinquish their licence and pay a fine of more than $9,000.

Oh, and I don’t doubt that there will be plenty of people out there rubbing their hands together in anticipation of an upsurge in enquiries they hope will become paying clients.

In the second article by the ABC they interview Jennifer Gribbin, Queensland-based occupational therapy driving assessor, who states that the ‘fitness to drive’ standard isn’t a “personal attack”, before adding that there is currently a one-to-two-month waiting period for Autistic people who are seeking an occupational therapy driving assessment with her.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that media organisations will sensationalise a story – even one related to people’s lives and health – to increase views and clicks. It’s the nature of the beast, and it isn’t going to change any time soon.

But what has surprised me is that others, including health practitioners and Autistic people (there are plenty quoted in the articles I’ve linked to from the ABC, while others are writing and posting online themselves – this is one of the worst: “Autism is now a crime in Australia”, the author actually doubles down on this with a follow up, too), have swallowed the rhetoric as if it’s gospel.

As Autistic people we have little choice but to become the best self-advocates we can be, for ourselves and for each other, because few others will be willing to do it for us unless you’re prepared to part with large sums of money.

As I mentioned earlier, I did some online research and made a phone call – all up it took about an hour’s worth of what I consider my precious time.

But if you can’t advocate for yourself and do your own digging for answers (real answers), for whatever reason (and there will be many out there who I realise cannot), then I sincerely hope you have a loved one or friend who can help.

The bottom line on driving in Australia if you’re an Autistic person

Again it seems that this is largely all a gross case of misinformation, and scaremongering, and profiteering (maybe even a dash of exploitation) – common occurrences, I have learnt, when it comes to Autism.

The bottom line is: if you’re in Australia and have concerns about what you’ve read recently about the ‘fitness to drive’ standards and mandatory requirements and penalties, despite everything else you might have read or might yet read, if you can drive safely, you can continue to drive without having to contact anyone or do anything. Period.

And if you don’t or can’t believe it, then pick up the phone (or have someone pick up the phone for you) and call your local transport authority.

If you can’t drive safely, for whatever reason, then regardless of any medical condition (Autism or anything else that’s covered in the Standard), or your age, or your gender, or you job, height, weight, or eye colour, turn your licence in now – for the sake of everyone else who uses our road network.

Simply ask yourself this question: Can I drive without endangering others?

If you can, then you can ignore the misguided articles from the ABC and others. You can go on living your life behind the wheel as you have been – safe in the knowledge that being Autistic doesn’t mean you’re worth less or have any less rights than anyone else.

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