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Neurodiverse Drivers, Traffic Stops, and the Library

by on January 10, 2024

Getting a driver’s license is a ticket to independence and a rite of passage for many teens and young adults. For those who are neurodivergent, the path to a driver’s license can be more challenging due to anxiety about navigating busy streets, rules of the road, and the
unpredictable interactions that go with a traffic stop by law enforcement.

According to a June 2021 article in Autism in Adulthood, less than a third of autistic individuals are driving independently compared to nearly 90 percent of neurotypical individuals. This may be due to many factors such as access to appropriate training and lower levels of executive function and communication skills typically associated with autism spectrum disorders.

Everyone feels a moment of panic when they see the flashing lights of a law enforcement officer behind them on the road. Although there are many reasons why drivers might be concerned, drivers who are neurodivergent may be unsure of how to communicate clearly, worry about being misunderstood and generally feel more anxiety than other drivers. Drivers who are neurodiverse may struggle with appropriate social interactions, eye contact, and handling stressful situations. Recent news stories about law enforcement officers responding with violence when encountering someone who does not react the way they expect, which may be due to neurodiversity, have also added to the challenges.

One library system is stepping up to help neurodiverse customers navigate the complexities of traffic stops and relieve anxiety around driving. Staff at Discoveries: The Library at the Mall recently brought the Neurodiverse Driver Traffic Stop program offered to its Annapolis,
Maryland branch to help neurodiverse customers learn how to interact with law enforcement officials if stopped while driving and how to communicate effectively in such a tense situation. To best serve this customer base, staff at the Discoveries Library first held two neurodiverse family focus groups to gather more information about what kinds of services and programs they’d like to see at the library. Support for the needs of anxious teens and young adults proved a common theme and the traffic stop program came out of those conversations. A partnership with the local police department and the non-profit advocacy group Pathfinders for Autism, the program’s success depended on its publicity and the offering of more resources to the attendees. The one-on-one program attracted participants from around Maryland and the District of Columbia because of its unique nature. Library staff used the large parking lot on the mall’s rooftop as a staging area for the police and drivers to role play in a safe environment. Police officers with special training in how to work
with neurodiverse drivers discussed important tips to remember for these drivers such as taking their time getting to a safe place to pull off the road, staying in the car unless asked by the law enforcement officer to get out, keeping hands on the wheel and visible, and having
identification and insurance paperwork easily accessible when needed. Helping neurodiverse drivers understand what to expect in these high-pressure situations can lead to decreased anxiety and more positive interactions for all involved.

The library received a lot of good feedback about the program from participants and their family members. According to comments provided to Pathfinders for Autism from a participant’s spouse, she believes Saturday was life changing for K. The couple shared that he was afraid of police and firefighters due to being severely abused by his firefighter uncle. The officer shared some of his own personal experiences with K which made an incredible impact on K. She also said that being given the opportunity to converse with multiple officers who are genuinely caring has changed his anxiety and perspective.

Some states around the country are working to address the needs of neurodiverse drivers. In June 2020, a bill was passed in the state of Nevada requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to “place a designation on a vehicle registration, driver’s license or identification card for a person with a communication need.” This is a step forward to help law enforcement understand the challenges that neurodiverse, deaf or hard of hearing customers face. But while small steps are being made to support neurodiverse teens and young adults, driving remains a stressful task for many. Twenty-year-old twins Forrest and Griffin Wintermute are college students who are on the autism spectrum. They have used the excellent public transportation in Portland, Oregon for years, so they weren’t motivated to learn to drive as soon as they turned 16. In the past year, Griffin decided to get his permit and then his license, after hours of practice driving with his grandfather, although he still frequently uses public transportation. Forrest decided that he is just fine with public transportation and doesn’t see the need to go through the stress and expense of getting his license. In addition to supporting drivers on the autism spectrum, libraries across the country have embraced the opportunity to get to know the needs of neurodiverse customers and provide much needed programming, education and support. Programs such as sensory Storytime, low distraction quiet reading periods, neurodivergent meet ups and game nights for all ages provide opportunities for customers to enjoy the library in a way that is welcoming and comfortable and extend the customers’ comfort interacting with officials and other strangers who may not always understand their communication challenges. With the National Institutes of Health estimating that nearly 15-20 percent of people worldwide exhibit neurodivergence, supporting the needs of these customers and their families continues to be increasingly important.

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