Helping the Learning Disabled Adolescent Learn to Drive
by Dale S. Brown ©2005
You are still driving your 22-year-old son to and from his community college classes. Or your child received their license and has been in two accidents. Or your 16-year-old daughter just flunked driver's education, and, once again, feels like a failure. Or you are trying to get the learning disabled teenagers in your area together to form a youth and adult group and spend most of your time organizing their parents to carpool.
In all of these cases you are facing the much-ignored fact that learning disabled adolescents have trouble learning to drive. In a 1982 survey by LDAA (then called ACLD) of 562 learning disabled adults over the age of 18, 117 could not drive, and 116 had more than one car accident (Newsbriefs, July-August, 1982). In today's world, with very little public transportation and high dependency on cars, inability to drive restricts one's freedom. Many blind people say that being unable to drive is their worst difficulty. To correct this difficulty, you, your child, and the driving instructor will have to work together.
Is your child ready to drive?
Driving is hard, particularly for those learning disabled people with perceptual problems. People with true dyslexia (difficulty processing language) are normal drivers, despite their problems memorizing street signs and reading maps. Most coordination problems can be handled through adaptive driving equipment.
If your child with perceptual problems is not yet of driving age, help him get ready to drive. Teach him a skill, such as riding a bike, horse, or motorboat, in which it is necessary to steer something through space. Therapies, such as sensory-motor integration, visual training, and perceptual motor exercises, work on the parts of the central nervous system most involved in driving. And teach him to find his way around town despite any directional handicap that might exist.
People with learning disabilities can learn to drive, but it will take extra effort. And they should wait until they are ready and have a mature central nervous system. As a parent, much of the burden for this decision falls on your shoulders.
Continuous and controlled attention is essential to drive safely. If your child "spaces out" despite efforts to concentrate, he probably is not ready to drive. Consider a psychoneurological evaluation in this case, as some learning disabled adolescents have previously undiagnosed seizures. If your child is on any attention-altering medication, discuss his plans to learn to drive with your doctor. Be sure the dosage is correct and your child is taking the medication as scheduled.
If no medical problems are indicated, help your child develop a state of relaxed awareness, even when stressed or bored. This means being consciously aware of sights, sounds, and feelings, relaxing muscles when tense, and staying alert when he would prefer to daydream or get lost in thought. He also needs to know signs of overstimulation and how to calm down.
Your child needs to drive with a sense of responsibility towards others on the road. He must know his limits and be willing to say "No" under social pressure. He should be determined to overcome his handicap, but this determination cannot be so strong that he endangers others by practicing without adequate supervision or driving when exhausted.
Most perceptual problems, no matter how severe, can be overcome with effort and self-discipline on the part of the student and a teacher willing to spend enough time.
How can you get the help? First, you (and, if possible, a local LDAA chapter) should work with the school system so that driver's education is offered to learning disabled students and is on your child's IEP. Let the driver's education staff know about the special needs of learning disabled adolescents, both in driving and in academics. Request extra hours of on-the-road training and/or work with driving simulators. Vocational rehabilitation may pay for extra driving lessons if that is what your child needs to reach his vocational goals.
Working with a driving teacher
Extra hours of instruction, while supervised by a teacher using a dual-controlled car with a brake, may make the difference between success and failure for your child. You may decide to pay for private driving lessons. For the most part, proprietary schools do not train their teachers to work with learning disabled drivers, so you will have to discuss your child's needs with the teacher. Your local United Cerebral Palsy Association chapter may know of teachers who have expertise in helping disabled citizens drive.
Before hiring a driving instructor assess reaction towards learning disabilities. For example, you might say, "John has perceptual problems, difficulty taking information in through his senses. Therefore, he will need more patience from you and we will be hiring you for extra lessons." Then pause. Wait for reactions. If you sense negative feelings, consider interviewing someone else.
Some coping skills for the learning disabled person
Even with excellent support, learning disabled persons must try hard to drive well. Fortunately, they are usually eager to drive and willing to work. Here are some suggestions for successful learning to share with your child:
The parent, the child, and the driving instructor need to work as a team. In most cases, however, a learning disabled person can become a safe, responsible driver. Keep in mind that in the United States the driver's license is more than a symbol of skill. Passing the driver's test has the excitement and challenge of a rite of passage. But, like all rites of passage, it is not only the end of a period of learning, but the beginning of a new challenge-becoming a safe and attentive driver.
Learning Disabilities Association of America
© 2004 LDA of America