Autism Spectrum Disorder

Learning to drive a car is not just a rite of passage into adulthood, it’s also a vital necessity in today’s life for many in communities with limited public transportation.  Individuals with ASD can certainly learn to be safe, defensive drivers, but it does mean that learning to drive may come with some additional challenges.

The release of the DSM-V last year consolidated several disorders that existed under the DSM-IV into a single diagnosis, Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The following are no longer diagnostically accurate:

  • Autistic Disorder
  • Asperger’s Disorder
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

If you have previously been diagnosed with one of these disorders under the guidelines of the DSM-IV, you are now covered under the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using the new guidelines.

How Does ASD Impact Driving?

While there is substantive scientific research available on the impacts of ASD on an individual’s abilities to learn in the classroom, as well as intervention recommendations, research is scant on the impact of ASD on learning to drive safely.  Car crashes remain the number one cause of death for teenagers and young adults in the United States, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2012).

Individuals with ASD diagnoses frequently demonstrate greater difficulty in learning the skills necessary for safe driving, especially in terms of the executive functioning skills of the mind (attention, inhibition, working memory, reason and planning).  Published research has demonstrated links between executive function and safe driving ability.  These mental processes are critical to the safe operation of a motor vehicle in live, dynamic traffic.   Our training program is designed to hone executive functioning skills through interactive games, challenges and exercises that are engaging, fun and effective.


How qualified is the instructor?

Most private and public driving instructors specialize in training neurotypical teenagers how to pass the driving test.  Most driver rehabilitation programs, including those based in regional hospitals, specialize in physical and occupational retraining for experienced drivers.  Modern Driver Institute is the only facility on the East Coast that specializes in cognitive and behavioral training for non-traditional novice drivers.

Surprisingly, there are no regulations governing who can train whom in Pennsylvania.  Anyone training novice drivers for pay must be licensed as a driving instructor by the PA Department of Education, but the only requirement to be a driving instructor is a high school diploma.  There are no guidelines at all over who may call themselves a “driver rehabilitation specialist” (someone who works with licensed drivers).  There are also no regulations limiting which driving instructors can claim expertise in working with individuals with cognitive, learning, behavioral or developmental differences.

At Modern Driver Institute, we’ve inherited students from private and public driving instructors, as well as from rehabilitation hospitals and rehabilitation specialists.  In almost every case, we’ve succeeded where they could not.  This is because we choose to specialize in this one area, and this specialization brings expertise to a new level.

Mike Mercadante is licensed by the PA Department of Education as a driving instructor.  He holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology and is currently working toward his Ph.D.  He is a subject matter expert who spent eight years working in traffic safety research, and who continues to read and author cutting edge research in the field.  He is approved through the PA Bureau of Autism Services to provide driver education through ACAP (Adult Community Autism Program) and has completed substantive training through the BAS.  He also has training in developmental psychology and applied behavior analysis.

Most importantly, he’s been training individuals with autism to drive safely and defensively for the past five years.  That’s hundreds and hundreds of hours providing services that have resulted in licensed drivers with years of crash-free, ticket-free driving experience.  And he is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on this very subject – driver education and novice drivers with autism.

Education, certification, and experience.  That’s the combination you should be looking for in a provider.

Learn more about Mike and see his certifications here.

How does training work?

The training provided at Modern Driver Institute is designed to target areas of specific concern for students with ASD.  All training is provided on a one-on-one basis and tailored especially for each student and their unique needs and learning style.

Within our training area, students are picked up at home at the beginning of each training session, and are returned home at the end of the session.  Alternatively, we can schedule pick up or drop off at other locations, such as school or work, depending upon the individual’s schedule.  Outside of our regular service area, we can arrange a meeting place to begin and end lessons.

Each lesson is approximately two hours long.  At the beginning, lessons will focus on building basic skills and getting to know the unique learning style of the student.  Later sessions will tackle more advanced concepts and help prepare the student for a lifetime of safe driving.  Each session, a detailed worksheet is completed and written notes can help guide practice sessions in between lessons.

Parents are encouraged to ride along on individual lessons to learn what their student is learning, so they can better reinforce the new skills in practice.

Autism in Pennsylvania

According to a 2008 survey by the Center For Disease Control (CDC), here is what the autism picture looks like in Pennsylvania:

  • 1 in 45 boys is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • 1 in 233 girls is diagnosed with ASD.
  • The total prevalence in Pennsylvania’s children is 1 in 75.
  • The national prevalence of ASD diagnoses is about 1 in 68 children.
  • Approximately 1 in 6 children is diagnosed with some form of developmental disability.

MDI works with clients throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.  Contact Modern Driver Institute for more information on our programs and services.

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