Learning To Drive With Learning Differences: A Parent’s Guide

A teen with learning disabilities necessarily requires a different approach to academics in school. But what about when it’s time to learn to drive? This parent’s guide to learning to drive with learning differences provides practical resources and support as you get started.

Learning To Drive With Learning Differences: A Parent's Guide

My son told me he wanted to get his drivers license almost two years ago. Please know, this was not necessarily a given in his mind or mine. In fact, my oldest is three years older and is still trying to decide if learning to drive is an option. So, when my youngest said he wanted to try, I had no idea where to start.

State Drivers Education And Licensing Requirements

As we began looking at the requirements for learning to drive in our state, it became clear that we would need to come up with a plan. Here are the steps in our state’s process for licensing:

  1. A Knowledge Test consisting of 48 questions, with 36 correct in order to pass.
  2. With a passing score, a Learner’s Permit is issued with a requirement to enroll in drivers training with a state certified instructor.
  3. Complete drivers training.
  4. Practice with Learner’s Permit for 6 months
  5. Take Behind The Wheel Drivers Exam

While some support accommodations may be requested, the state requires that a learner try and fail first, before providing them. This meant that our first hurdle would be navigating the written knowledge test.

Learning To Drive With Learning Differences:

Written Knowledge Tests And Learning Differences

If your child has a learning disorder related to reading or writing, the knowledge exam will likely present some obstacles.

Online Drivers Education

It took us more than a year to complete an online drivers education program and sample tests. It was more than a year because my son needed at least double the amount of time allotted to read and retain the information.

(If you have seen any of our learning plans from the past year, you know how consistently he worked to finish the lessons required to pass the knowledge exam.)

Once we completed the online course, we took six months to complete practice test after practice test offered on the DMV website. He needed every bit of this practice to overcome the test anxiety alone, much less master the information.

Practical Application

More importantly, we spent time making the things he was learning on the computer more concrete and applicable in every day life. This was essential for retention, as he cannot rely on rote memorization.

For example, when he completed a lesson about one way streets, I drove us to the one way streets in our area. I made turns in every direction and pointed out all the signage as I reviewed the various rules he learned in the course.

Was it tedious and a little daunting? Yes, it really was.

Did it work?

He passed the knowledge exam without accommodations on his very first try.

I cried for hours with relief, gratitude, and pride. My kid refused to give up and did everything possible to prepare himself, knowing his learning differences, and it worked. He did this. I helped provide the scaffolding he needed in the learning, but make no mistake, I did not require this learning.

He wanted to do it. He committed to the process, no matter how long and demanding. He achieved his first goal of getting his learners permit.

What Learning Differences Affect Driving?

While dyslexia has been my son’s greatest hurdle so far in learning to drive, the reality is that the knowledge test was just the beginning.

The truth is that reading and writing are not the only neurodevelopmental needs that affect a person’s ability to drive. But how much do our kids’ differences influence actual outcomes in driving?

Research shows that overall risk is not any greater than other teens, new to driving.

Autistic adolescents and young adults, as well as those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other neurodevelopmental differences, may have characteristics that place them at risk for unsafe driving behaviors, like inattention or getting lost in the details of the road.

On the other hand, they may also have characteristics that promote safer driving behavior, such as a vigilance to follow driving laws. A new study conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that crash risk for young autistic drivers is similar to other young drivers but they are much less likely to have their license suspended or receive a traffic violation.

Teen Drivers Source.org

In my family, learning to drive is not an expectation. Nor is it something discouraged. Like anything else in this life, I followed an interest-led approach.

If our children really want to learn to drive and have the ability to do so, it will become apparent to everyone, especially our kids, whether or not it is a good choice for right now. (I would never rule it out entirely! There are, in fact, cars that essentially drive for us at this point. Who knows what the future holds?)

Learning To Drive With Learning Differences:

Getting Behind The Wheel With Learning Differences

After the high of passing the written exam wore off, we scheduled my son’s first in-person driving lesson.

Like any other teacher-led course for my son, I investigated all the options. I asked questions about the available instructors, and finally chose a teacher who is a mom, loves animals, and has worked with kids on the spectrum before.

It took more time and energy than just googling driving schools and reading Yelp reviews, but it was worth it.

Finding The Best Instructor

The morning of his first lesson, he was literally shaking with anxiety. Finding the right instructor mattered more than I could’ve predicted. While I was concerned about how she would manage learning differences like processing speed and executive function while driving with him, she stepped in and immediately reassured him and helped him calm down before they even got in the car. He calmed down under her supervision and was able to push through the anxiety.

(Note: I assured my son that if he met her and did not feel comfortable, or if I did not feel comfortable, I would politely cancel the lesson and find another instructor. That also took some of the pressure off.)

After the first lesson, he looked a little pale, reported that it was “good but terrifying”, and that she was sending over a lesson review for parents.

On a scale of 1-5, five being ready to drive well, and 1 being unsafe, her lesson review revealed that he scored a 3 his first time out. She reiterated how impressed she was with his thoughtfulness and caution behind the wheel, his knowledge of the rules of the road, and his desire to be respectful of other drivers.

Learning To Drive With Learning Difference Takes Time (and that’s OK)

We have at least six months of practice ahead of us with the goal of passing his in-person test sometime this winter. This means it will be almost two years of total learning, prior to actually getting his license.

I don’t regret a second of it.

Driving is lifelong skill. If it takes our kids a few more months, or even years, to safely and confidently master it, so be it.

There has been so much learning throughout this process for my son. Yes, most of it around driving, but also functional reading practice and mastery, self-confidence, and navigating government systems.

When all is said and done, more than anything, I want you to know that it is possible. Follow your child’s lead. Give them what they need for as long as they need it.

Actually, that’s my advice for anything and everything related to our kids, driving or not.

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