Learning to drive is a major milestone for all teens—and a hurdle for many. If your child has learning and attention issues, however, it’s vital to recognize the unique driving challenges she may face. Then you can seek out the support and strategies she’ll need to be a safe and successful driver. Here’s how some learning and attention issues can affect teens behind the wheel.
Inattention, Distractibility and Impulsivity
Cell phones ringing. Cute pets on the sidewalk. Distraction is the leading cause of crashes among all drivers. In fact, if a driver takes his eyes off the road for as little as two seconds, her chances double of being in a crash or near crash.
For teens with ADHD, tuning out distractions and focusing on the road may be especially hard. Issues with impulsivity can compound their risk of an accident. Teens with these issues may overestimate how quickly they can pull into traffic. And their crashes can be more serious because teens with ADHD may be more likely to speed.
“For teens with ADHD tuning out distractions and focusing on the road may be especially hard.”
There is some good news, however. The risks for drivers with ADHD may not be as high as commonly believed. Studies showing that drivers with ADHD are two to four times more likely to get in a crash were based on people who also have unrelated issues like oppositional defiance disorder. According to recent research, for people with only ADHD the risk isn’t that high. And ADHD medications may cut the risk significantly.
The written portion of a driving test can be a hurdle for some teens with dyslexia and other reading-related issues. But by the time they reach high school, most have the basic reading skills they need to pass a state exam.
Reading issues are more likely to cause problems once a teen is behind the wheel. It can be hard to read road signs quickly and to scan the dashboard or GPS device for information. Many people with reading issues have trouble processing all kinds of visual information. Juggling all these tasks, while also watching for pedestrians and other cars, can be challenging.
Visual and Spatial Issues
A number of learning and attention issues can affect how kids perceive their position in space. This includes dyscalculia, nonverbal learning disabilities, dyspraxia and dyslexia. Kids with these issues often confuse left with right. They may also lack a sense of direction and find it hard to judge distances or the time it takes to get from one spot to another.
These issues can create numerous driving challenges. Teens may have trouble reading maps and figuring out where they’re going. They may have a hard time judging how fast another car is traveling and how far away it is. Parking can also be hard to master.
A missed exit. A road detour. A fender-bender or roadside emergency. Much of driving is about problem solving. And it’s got to be quick. Teens with executive functioning issues often have trouble with prioritizing and problem solving.
On the road, they may become easily flustered. In an emergency, they may be too overwhelmed to come up with a plan for getting help. Poor short-term memory and difficulty getting information in the right order can complicate things.
New drivers may have trouble remembering all the steps for dealing with an accident. These include things like sharing registration and insurance information with police and other drivers and taking pictures of the accident.
Motor Skill Problems
Teens with dyspraxia can have a hard time planning and coordinating body movements. That includes hand-eye movements. Those types of issues can make it hard to maneuver a steering wheel or a stick shift. Backing up, changing lanes and taking sharp turns can also be a challenge.
These challenges don’t mean your child won’t be able to drive. It might take longer, however, and require more practice. Remind her that she doesn’t have to learn to drive on anyone else’s schedule, either. She can put it off until she’s ready. Or depending where you live, she maybe be able to extend her learner’s permits to get more practice.