Like many young men counting down the days until they can drive, David Hastings has March 15 circled in red: It's the day he takes his behind-the-wheel driver's test. Is he confident he'll pass the test? "Yes, I am," he announced firmly.

Hastings had to master more than the usual challenges to get to this point. For one thing, he's 22, not 16. And he has autism.

Traditional driver's education classes haven't worked well for him.

But now that he's studying to be a graphic designer, he figures he needs a car for independence. He's determined that his form of autism, Asperger's, won't stop him from achieving either goal.

"It's an integral step to his becoming independent," said his father, Tom Hastings, who agreed that David needed to get his driver's license. "Initially he wasn't interested in driving. But he's gotten to the age where he realizes that in another year, he's going to graduate and, hopefully, get a job, and he needs to be able to get where he needs to go."

Hastings is a graduate of Courage Center's driving program. He tried taking a regular driver's ed course, but he struggled with it. "The guy couldn't tell me what I was doing wrong," he said.

That news of a communication problem didn't surprise Connie Shaffer, director of the Golden Valley center's program, which deals with students facing a wide range of physical and developmental issues. People with learning disabilities often need a different form of instruction, she said.

"You can't just say, 'Go up to the corner and make a right turn,'" she said. People with autism "don't process information the same way.

"You have to identify the steps and break them down: You tell them at what point to slow down, at what point to turn the wheel, at what point to turn the wheel back again and at what point to accelerate again. It's a different form of task analysis."

Larry Sjerven is executive director of Twin Cities-based Adaptive Experts, a for-profit driving program. Like Shaffer, he is both a certified occupational therapist and a state-licensed driving instructor.

"I have to wear both hats," he said. "First, I'm a therapist. I have to figure out what I can do to minimize a student's disabilities. Once I've done that, I can relate to them as a driving instructor."

The decision on whether to let offspring get behind the wheel can be difficult for parents, even under the best circumstances. Add the variable of a special-needs situation, and it becomes exponentially harder, Shaffer said. The decision ultimately involves many factors, from problem-solving ability, distractibility and decision-making to physical attributes, including maturity level, coordination and reaction time.

"We have to look at each person individually," she said.

If there is one universal factor, it's that learning-disabled students typically fare better if they're older than their counterparts.

"They tend to be delayed in the maturation process," she said. "They haven't participated in group social interactions as much. The person needs to be emotionally and cognitively ready" to drive. "If they're a little older, they've had more time to get life experiences."

The first step in both the Courage Center and Adaptive Experts programs is an assessment of the would-be drivers to make sure they have the wherewithal to maintain control of a vehicle. In addition to tests conducted in an office, Courage Center puts the would-be drivers in a car -- in its parking lot, not on a street -- to see if they grasp the concept of driving.

"I've had people drive straight for a telephone pole because they're watching a squirrel," Shaffer said. "We need to assess their ability to stay on task."

About 80 percent of the youngsters who go through the assessment move on to lessons, but Shaffer said that number is skewed as a result of parents not bringing in children who lack the concentration needed to drive.

"Most parents know" whether their child is a viable candidate for driving, she said. "On occasion we have parents who don't want to see the disability, but for the most part, it's a question of whether their child is ready or not."

The programs tend to be open-ended, Sjerven said. The state requires six hours of behind-the-wheel training, but that often isn't enough in these cases.

"You can't just say, 'You've met the requirement for your white card,' which certifies that you've had the six hours of training," he said. "If I'm not comfortable that the student can take the road test without a good chance of passing it, I won't sign off on the release form."

Shaffer agreed that flexibility is a cornerstone of the program.

"Sometimes they'll take a few lessons and then we'll tell them to go work on that for several months and then call us back," she said. "You just have to give them more time. It can take some people years."

It's not unusual to spend $1,500 or more on the lessons. For that reason alone, instructors focus on making each session count. And their success rate is impressive: 95 percent of the students who go through the Courage Center program eventually get their licenses, Shaffer said.

Which is not to say that they all pass the road test the first time they take it. But when they fail, it's usually for the same reasons that other students do.

"They get nervous and make silly mistakes," Shaffer said. "When you tell them what they did wrong, they say, 'Oh, yeah, I knew that.'"

Matthew Doble, who has problems with attention-deficit disorder, struggled so much with the written test -- he needed to take it six times before he passed -- that he lost interest in further training. But when the 18-year-old got a job offer 10 days ago, he became so focused on getting his license that he took three behind-the-wheel lessons from Courage Center last week.

"I'd love to get it done," he said. "I'm pretty excited about the job, but I need a way to get to work. I'd like to know that I have my freedom. I want to be able to do stuff without always asking for a ride."

For Tom Hastings, having David get a license will mean that his son has taken another step toward self-sufficiency.

"I don't consider myself old," the 64-year-old said, "but I do realize that I'm not going to be around forever."

Instructor Steve Quinn is as confident as David is about his chances of passing.

"We've been working together since July," he said. "He's really open about taking suggestions. I'm optimistic, but if he doesn't make it, we'll just try again."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392