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Out of the many topics within the driving space, there is little discussion on sensory elements. Besides executive functioning and anxiety, sensory challenges can be a major part. Driving is no different as it is very sensory based and comes with sensory elements influencing the road. Think when you go on a ride; the sights, the buildings, other cars, lights, and road signs all are part of the external visual senses your mind picks up. Add in heavy traffic, construction, and bad drivers and it can be overwhelming for some. Here I will cover the sensory elements you will encounter and how to address specific needs with strategies.

The senses
The first sense is hearing, and as with any of the senses, the impact of sound to an individual can vary by each person. Someone may be sensitive to sounds from the car engine and its roar, the window opening and closing, or the radio and music. These are internal sounds of your car. While you have some level of control for the internal sounds, you may not have control for sounds outside of your car. Sounds can exist in the form of another car’s engine, insects, trucks, music from other cars, construction equipment, the hum of a public bus, and so on. You are likely to encounter any possible sound out there when you are driving.

Sight is the second sense that could cause distraction while driving. Just like with sounds, there are a lot of external visuals that your mind must process quickly. Anything you see is an external sight. Cars, lampposts, signs, people walking, animals, places, rivers, and the list goes on and on. Depending on how an individual may react, these sights can be overwhelming or make it easy to be distracted, which is what we do not want to occur while driving.

The third sense is touch and this is about your space inside your car: the steering wheel, brake and gas pedals, lights, turn signals and more. Some individuals may not like how some objects feel. Think of how some people cut the tags off their clothes to feel more comfortable. For some, the feeling of a seat belt may feel too restricting, while others may not like the leather or cloth on the seats.

Sensory overload while driving
It is important to be aware of how your sensory issues impact you. When you experience sensory overload, your body and mind do not respond as they typically would, and that may be problematic while driving. Driving requires you to be alert and focused. Sensory overload can cause stress and fatigue. Driving while fatigued is similar to driving under the influence of alcohol: Drivers’ reaction times, awareness of hazards and ability to sustain attention all worsen the drowsier the driver.

Stress from the day’s challenging tasks and sensory overload can play into fatigue and negative coping behaviors. Next, we’ll look at tools for managing sensory issues.

Sensory tools
To help manage sensory issues while driving, it is important for drivers to know what sensory tools are available. The best thing with sensory tools is that there are many options with which people can experiment. Here are a few tools I personally find helpful:
1. Music/Radio/Podcast
2. Plush on dashboard
3. Sun/nighttime glasses
4. Customizable wraps for seat belt/steering wheels
5. CalmiGo device

For example, I use video game music, a plush and Calmigo to help manage my sensory needs for driving. The music gives me a hyperfocus that gets me through the day and the other items help with any anxiety I may have. While these tools work for me, other drivers will prefer different options. I do believe sensory tools help make driving more doable, therefore empowering yourself.

Mental Strategies
If sensory tools do not work for you, consider mental strategies or scripts that you could rely on. One example involves dealing with high beam lights during a nighttime drive. This is one sensory aspect that I do not like. It throws me off and at times feels unnecessarily bright for me. I could use a sensory tool like nighttime glasses, but I tend to not wear glasses. To solve this issue, I came up with a mental script. Whenever someone’s high beam lights are blocking my view, I tell myself to ignore the light and I focus on a different object like the road pavement marks. This allows me to keep driving as usual, while the glare becomes more manageable. Others may have different strategies like remembering where a street is located or running through a checklist in your mind.

Managing Emotions
Finally, it’s important to manage emotions and how to respond when things feel intense while driving. Key elements of driving include not just knowing the technical aspects, but also reacting calmly to situations. Due to the human condition, most people drive with varying degrees of emotion. It is important to have a plan to know when to deal with intense emotions. Engaging with anger and being on the verge of a breakdown can lead to dangerous driving behaviors. One strategy is identifying a spot – like a safe parking lot – to pull over and take a mental break for a few moments to let your mind calm down. It is better than having a reaction that negatively affects you on the road.

Failure to address the sensory aspects adds an additional barrier to learning how to drive. With strategies, new and even experienced drivers are more prepared to drive safely. With every challenge, there is always a solution to be found. It is up to the drivers to explore what works for them and how to engage with their solutions safely.

Pathfinders for Autism does not endorse services or products.

Additional resources
PFA Tips: How to Interact with Police

Driving with Autism

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