Shifting gears: Teaching my autistic daughter to drive

Meredith Cummings
6 min readFeb 26

Note: Every autistic person’s experience is different. This is my experience with my daughter and she read and approved of this before I posted it.

I can tell you the day I discovered freedom because I remember every intoxicating detail of the moment I drove alone for the first time after getting my driver’s license.

It was August. UB40’s song “Red Wine” was playing on the radio and the Alabama sky had just opened up and sprinkled that kind of Southern rain that makes everything — even the air — smell like grass. I rolled down the car window and breathed in independence as the road before me stretched around the Birmingham airport. Out of my peripheral vision I saw planes take off and land.

Now, in what seems like a single heartbeat of time, my daughter is learning to drive.

Isabel is 13 and wearning a purple T-shirt and pink shorts. I’m beside her in a blue sleevelss top and navy shorts. We stand in fron of our red Volvo wagon, Ruby, in a parking deck. We are smiling.
Isabel and I pose in front of Ruby, the red Volvo, before our first cross-country drive from Alabama to Los Angeles, July, 2015.

This week I took her to get her learner’s permit, a delayed inevitability. Her autism means some developmental milestones are postponed, which means that she, at the age of 20, arrived where many people are at 16 — wanting her driver’s license.

Isabel has challenges with various sensory experiences so it’s more difficult for her to learn to drive than it was for me. When I try to see the road from her point of view I realize it’s terrifying.

Sit at a large intersection and imagine being sensitive to light and noise, even on a quiet day. It’s not a fun time for someone with sensory challenges. For me, sovereignty over the car as my kingdom is a great high. For her it feels like certain death and equals panic.

So I purchased bright yellow, reflective magnets that say “Student driver: Please be patient.” (Sometimes I drive around with the magnets on the car when I’m alone and it’s amazing how kind people can be just because of a magnet.) It occurs to me that we could all use ”Please be patient” magnets, buttons, T-shirts, stickers and even tattoos.

“Hmm. People who practice patience,” I think to myself as I stick the magnets to each side and the back bumper. “What would that world look like?”

Teaching Isabel to drive has been unexpectedly comical because I’ve been super chill. Dear reader, I am not normally chill, much less super chill. But teaching her to drive…

Meredith Cummings

Freelance journalist, Teaching Assistant Journalism Professor at Lehigh University