nighttime time lapse of mountain road curving and car lights driving around pine tree

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving

Ah, driving. The ultimate achievement of teenage freedom (in the US, at least). For anyone learning to drive, teenage or adult, the convenience and independence of a license is powerful motivation. I’ve been driving for years, now, but it wasn’t an easy process to get my license. At the time, I wasn’t as cognizant of my symptoms, but looking back, I can see why I struggled so much with having Sensory Processing Disorder and driving.

Proprioception in Cars

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) makes it hard for me to interpret sensory stimuli, including proprioceptive information. Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your body is located in space. I struggle with motion sickness on buses, boats, even escalators, because the movement doesn’t match my brain’s sense of where my body should be. Initially, this made driving a car incredibly stressful; relative to your body, the car is not moving, but relative to the ground, it’s moving a LOT. Coordinating the movements of driving with the interpretation of how the car responds took a while to become natural. Once it did, though, it made my motion sickness in cars much better, as long as I’m the one driving.

Peripersonal Space

When you’re driving a car, your “body” sense expands to include the dimensions of the vehicle. This is called “peripersonal space”- the sense that expands and contracts to include the objects in our immediate surroundings. In The Body Has a Mind of its Own, authors Sandra and Matthew Blakesley explain,

“When you drive a car, your peripersonal space expands to include it, from fender to fender, from fender to door, and from tire to roof. As you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling, you can “feel” the nearness of your car’s roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. This is why you instinctively duck when you pass under the barrier.”

Learning how to manage Sensory Processing Disorder and driving took me a while, in part because it was a challenge for me to get a sense of the dimensions of a car. Now that my brain has established it as effectively a part of my body, driving is much simpler. However, there are additional layers of difficulty that, no matter how much I learn, might always be challenging.

car side mirror with city and other cars in reflection
Photo by Onaivi Dania on Unsplash

Visual Challenges

The visual tasks involved in driving can quickly become overwhelming. Monitoring the movement of cars around you, watching for signals, brake lights, and obstacles in the road is already a lot to handle. Add to that the stress of driving in an unfamiliar area and attempting to read street signs and highway exit signs while managing the rest of your visual tasks, and you have a veritable mountain of sensory stimuli to deal with.

Driving with Dyspraxia

I think that the processing power I dedicate to handling visual stimuli while driving leaves little for planning complex movements, known as praxis. I have symptoms of dyspraxia, meaning I have trouble following sequences of actions and, even more so, planning the steps involved in getting from A to B by myself. If I can prepare ahead of time, I’m fine, but I really struggle to make decisions in the moment because I feel like I can’t process all of the information fast enough to take the right action.

Driving with dyspraxia makes me an anxious planner. If I’m going somewhere new, I study Google Maps obsessively, considering the factors I do or don’t like in each route. Is there a highway involved? Can I take a route with fewer lanes? If I miss a turn, how easy would it be to fix? How early should I leave to account for any mistakes? As I’ve become more comfortable with the other aspects of driving- the sensitivity of the pedals and the steering wheel, the dimensions of the car, predicting what other drivers are going to do- I can dedicate more mental energy to handling praxis. I still plan my routes in new places, but I’m more confident in my ability to get back on track if I get lost.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving Takes Practice, Practice, Practice

If you’re struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder and driving, an occupational therapist can help you identify your particular difficulties and come up with ways to make them easier. Whether you work with an occupational therapist or not, the best way to get comfortable with driving is to practice. When you’re overstimulated in the car, the last thing you feel like doing is getting back in the driver’s seat, I know. Trust me, I rolled my eyes so hard at everyone who told me that practicing would make it feel more natural; I felt like I just wasn’t made for driving and no amount of practice would change that. I admit- I was wrong. Practice does help, and I find that now that I’m adept at each aspect of driving and can better regulate my nervous system, my sensitivities probably make me a more mindful, safer driver than I would be otherwise.

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