Several decades ago, I took driving lessons. They did not go well.
I remember crying silent tears at the approach to a roundabout one foggy November evening, when having to contend with the glare of lights and rain as well as mirrors, signals and gears was more than I could cope with. The experience was overwhelming and the young male instructor did not try to hide his irritation when I persisted in repeating the same mistakes and was unable to coordinate my feet, hands and and eyes to travel any distance.
Ten years later, I tried again. I found a older, female instructor this time, who gave lessons in an automatic. That first lesson was transformative. After driving around the business park by my office for a few minutes, she said:
“I can see you’re fine with steering so do you mind if I smoke?”
And off we went, me holding up enormous queues of traffic on the rural back roads, her with a fag on the go (it was still legal then), chatting about nothing in particular, only throwing in the occasional observation if I was too close to the verge or to check my road position when turning right. We would detour into supermarket car parks to practise reverse parking and she’d tell me to grab her hand whilst she hung out of the passenger door to see how far over the line I’d ended up this time.
By simplying the process of driving by removing the clutch and the gear stick, and getting rid of the previous dickhead instructor, my anxiety was lowered and I had enough capacity to concentrate on everything else. I was not worrying about being annoying or judged by my lack of ability, so I actually made fast progress, and as the number of different elements to coordinate and concentrate on had been decreased I was still within the limits of what I could manage.
The hazard perception test was interesting: to me, everything, everywhere is a potential or occurring hazard. Pedestrian on the opposite pavement 50 metres away? They might dash across the street at the last moment having spotted someone they know. A gate on a country lane? Could be a tractor reversing out of there, or maybe a herd of cows about to cross the road.
But I passed the theory test, and I passed the practical test too, on my first attempt. Driving hadn’t suddenly become easy – I was still anxious – but having made those adaptations to the process itself, it became less overwhelmingly complex and stressful, and I now had the capacity to deal with the challenges involved. A crucial difference was also being taught by someone who was on my side, encouraging me to persevere when it felt too hard and building my confidence by being a very astute judge of when to step in and when to let me work things out for myself. I was no longer worrying about whether she was irritated by my mistakes or by social rules, and could concentrate on the road ahead (and the mirrors, and the blind spot, and correct signalling, and the road signs, and braking distances …).
This is an example of a finding from Tan’s study mentioned previously that arises following the recognition of autism in adulthood; that is, the opportunity to reflect on what works well for you and what does not; where your strengths and challenges lie; and to switch things up accordingly. She describes this as:
“Adjusting personal expectations and developing new adaptation strategies”
This is key in releasing those feelings of failure and inadequacy in not measuring up to expectations of what you should be able to do (that’s you, dickhead driving instructor). If you can evaluate your world through this lens, then you are empowered to make some changes that should improve your overall quality of life and, in turn, your self-esteem. This could mean making changes to your environment (too bright? loud? busy?) or using devices to modify sensory input such as noise-cancelling headphones, requesting accommodations at work (a desk away from a thoroughfare, two monitors, transcription software, the option to work from home) or finding an accountability partner, a coach or an advocate to support you.
Tan eloquently sums up the insight which realising you are neurodivergent can throw at you like a lightning bolt (I imagine this in the voice of Morgan Freeman):
“… becoming typical was not a feasible endeavor”
I might get this as a tattoo.