Teaching teens to drive is always a big undertaking – classes, permits, time on the road with parents and state tests. An added complication is learning to drive as a teen with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, A.D.H.D.
The most common factor involved in car crashes is “driver distraction” where the driver loses focus for some reason like talking on the phone, turning on the radio or by being exhausted or intoxicated. Drivers with A.D.H.D. have trouble focusing to begin with, and it is that impaired focus that can lead to accidents on the road.
One study puts young drivers with A.D.H.D. two to four times more likely to be in a car accident than a regular teen. To put that statistic in perspective, drivers with A.D.H.D. are more likely to be in a car crash than an adult drunk driver.
That’s not to say it isn’t possible for a teen with A.D.H.D or another cognitive impairment like Asperger’s syndrome to pass their driver’s test and become a responsible adult behind the wheel. It just takes patience, encouragement, persistence, guidance and more than a little time.
The New York Times brought forward some tangible ideas from various experts about how to help teens suffering from these conditions succeed on the road.
Step 1: Asking the Right Questions
Does the 16-year-old really need to drive? Are there other forms of transportation available? Is the teenager ready to learn how to drive?
It could be that the passage of time alone will aid the teenager in terms of focus and maturity. One idea to measure focus is to ask the teen to “narrate” their parents’ driving to show that they are observing the other driver’s choices. Another idea is to measure how the teenager has done with similar tasks in the past like learning to ride a bike.
Expert Dr. Simons-Morton: “If I were the parent of an A.D.H.D. or other special-needs kid, my goal would be to delay licensing.”
Step 2: The Right Medication
Medications like Ritalin and Adderall can provide important stimulation and focus for those suffering from A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. Other drugs can help control the teen’s anxiety and other associated disorders.
Expert Dr. Barkley: “Medication should not really be optional.” He recommends considering extended-release formulations that remain effective at night, when accidents are most common.
Step 3: Positive Reinforcement
Parents can lose their temper, but staying positive is key. No one can learn while only receiving criticisms.
Expert psychologist Gregory A. Fabiano: “It’s important to remind parents to work on catching your teen doing the right thing.”
Step 4: Practice Practice Practice
Most states only require 40 to 50 hours of driving practice before granting a licensing exam, but many safety experts feel that this amount of time is not nearly enough for most teens. For teens with focus difficulties, extra practice time is key. Setting up a log book to monitor how many hours have been spent practicing is a good idea.
Step 5: Rooted in the Present
Some teens with A.D.H.D. find that added tasks keep them focused. There is some evidence to suggest that learning on manual transmission can be an effective learning tool because it demands the driver’s full attention. Other strategies are to use the radio at times like red lights to keep the driver’s mind from wandering.
Step 6: Bring in the Best
If all else fails, professional driving rehabilitation specialists are available. Special instructors like those were originally meant for stroke victims or elderly drivers trying to get re-acclimated to the road, but these days they are helping teens with special needs as well.