Teen drivers have to learn many new skills, like judging how far away a moving car is and anticipating what other drivers are going to do. It can be extra hard for teens with ADHD to learn safe driving skills. They may need different strategies — and lots of practice.
Being a safe driver requires executive function skills. This includes paying attention to the road and being able to make quick, accurate judgment calls. For teens with ADHD, these skills are often a challenge.
There’s a special type of driving instructor who works with new drivers with ADHD. These professionals are called driving rehabilitation specialists (or driver rehabilitation specialists). Here are eight tips from certified driver rehabilitation specialist Amanda Plourde. You can use them to help your teen with ADHD learn safe driving skills.
1. Practice active scanning.
Driving requires knowing what’s happening ahead of you, behind you, and right next to you. This skill is called active scanning, and it involves a number of executive functions that kids with ADHD struggle with, including attention and working memory.
To help build this skill, have your child describe what’s going on around you when you’re driving together. Give examples of specific things to look for, like crosswalks, turn signals, stop signs, and side streets where cars may be pulling out.
2. Talk about intersections.
Intersections can be confusing — and complicated. There are different types (lights versus stop signs) and rules about who goes when. These rules may be hard for kids with ADHD to remember in the moment. Pull over before you approach an intersection and talk through what to do. Make sure your teen understand concepts like “right of way” and “yield,” and which lane it’s OK to turn from.
3. Use stickers on the steering wheel.
When there’s so much else going on, even remembering which way to turn the wheel can be tough. Use stickers as a reminder. Mark the right side of the steering wheel with a sticker to help your teen remember which side is right and which is left. You can also put a sticker on the 12:00 position of the steering wheel.
4. Stick to familiar routes.
Teens with ADHD often have trouble with planning and thinking about things in different ways. That’s why it helps to stick to familiar routes at first. Your teen can focus on building skills without feeling stressed about figuring out a new route. For example, you might have your child practice making left turns at the same intersection before dealing with unfamiliar intersections.
5. Cut down on distractions.
It’s hard enough for a new driver to pay attention to the road. Add music and other passengers to the mix, and focusing gets even harder. Often, state law restricts the number and type of passengers new drivers can have. But you can keep limits in place for your child for even longer, or add other restrictions.
6. Give extra practice.
Once teens get their permit, most states require a set number of driving hours before they take their road test. Some states even require several hours of formal driving instruction. You might consider doubling that amount to give your teen with ADHD extra time to build skills before driving solo.
7. Keep an eye on medication use.
For teens who take ADHD medication, it’s important that it’s in full effect while they’re driving. Talk with your child’s prescriber about medication and driving. Ask whether the dosage or timing needs to be adjusted, so it works during driving time.
8. Ask the instructor about experience with ADHD.
For teens with ADHD taking driving lessons, it helps to have an instructor who understands ADHD. Ask if your child’s instructor has experience working with teens with ADHD. The instructor may have or know about other helpful strategies.
If the instructor has experience, ask how those students with ADHD did. Teens with IEPs can even share it with the instructor. It could give the instructor ideas for how to tailor driving instruction.
Keep in mind that while some teens are eager to learn to drive, others may be scared. Talk openly about whether your teen feels ready. It’s a big challenge to tackle, and pushing it can make it more difficult.
The more supported teens feel, the more likely they are to build the confidence and skills needed to be a good driver. Read about a study on teen drivers with ADHD. And learn about the connection between ADHD and risky behavior.
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About the author
About the author
Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.
Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.