People with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) often have difficulty getting from one location to another. They frequently lose their way, have trouble using public transportation, and struggle with driving-related issues. Contributing factors may include poor time management, problems with spatial and visual perception, and difficulties with eye-hand coordination. Diane Swonk, a successful economist who has dyslexia, admits, “Every time I get off the elevator in the place that I’ve worked for 17 years, I’m still lost. I still can’t get on the right train going home from work unless I try really hard. Going from Point A to Point B is just not easy for me.”

This article will explain many of the challenges individuals with LD and AD/HD face in travel and transportation. It will offer a variety of strategies for teaching your teenager how to get around effectively, which will further prepare him to function independently as a young adult.

The table below illustrates how various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can result in challenges to getting around.

Learning or Attention Problem

Challenges in Travel and Transportation

Reading

Difficulty reading road signs

Temporal perception (sense of time)

Problems planning enough time to get where one wants to go

Attention

Tendency to get sidetracked on  the way to a destination

Spatial perception

Tendency to become disoriented easily; have trouble following maps; have problems navigating around new, unfamiliar areas

Directionality

Difficulty distinguishing east from west and right from left and a subsequent tendency to follow directions inaccurately

Depth perception

Problems gauging how fast cars are coming, when crossing a street as a pedestrian or when driving through an intersection

Receptive language

Difficulty understanding spoken directions

Auditory processing

Difficulty following the steps or sequence of spoken directions

Auditory figure-ground (focusing on one sound against a noisy background)

Problems “tuning in” to messages delivered over public address systems in noisy bus depots, train stations, and airports

Visual memory

Trouble remembering landmarks along a familiar route

Visual figure-ground (focusing on one object in a crowded visual field)

Difficulty reading maps; problems reading departure and arrival boards at airports, train stations, and bus depots; trouble finding one’s car in a large parking lot or one’s suitcase on an airport baggage carousel

 

Driving Presents Special Challenges

As I explain in my book, Meeting the Challenge of Learning Disabilities in Adulthood, driving presents its own set of challenges:

With all of its complexities, driving can be of particular concern to individuals with LD and AD/HD.  Difficulties vary and can develop for a multitude of reasons.  For example, people may find it difficult to train their right foot to recognize the difference between the accelerator and the brake and, on standard [manual] transmission vehicles, to train their left foot to simultaneously work the clutch.  They may find it challenging to develop a working understanding of the reactivity of the steering wheel, which must turn only so much to pass another car but must turn even more when it is time to round a corner. They may struggle to interpret what they are seeing in the rearview mirror. On cars with manual [standard] transmission, they may have difficulty moving from one gear to another, particularly to reverse, which generally requires an additional thrust.  Further, they may have considerable difficulty learning how to parallel park.  Indeed, many find it difficult to meld the many separate aspects of car handling into one coordinated driving experience. (Roffman, 2000, p. 191)

Tips for Teaching Your Teen to Manage Travel and Transportation

The following strategies may be used during your child’s middle and high school years to help him learn to get around safely and on track:

Planning Your Trip

  • Practice reading maps with your child. Start by discussing simple routes; gradually make the hypothetical journey more complex. Teach him how to use online mapping tools, such as Mapquest.com, which offer written directions as well as maps between any two addresses. When he understands how to read a map, have him plan a short trip or two, first with your supervision and then on his own.
  • Teach your teen how to read transportation schedules. If you live in a town with a local bus route, review the schedule together, pointing out the departure and arrival columns, the weekday versus weekend schedules, and any other pertinent information. If there’s a map of the route, suggest marking the way from one location to another with a colored marker. Ask him travel-related questions until it’s clear that he understands how to use the schedule. Send him on a short trip that requires him to practice both his ability to read transit schedules as well as his newly acquired map reading skills.
  • Discuss how to estimate the travel time between two places. Many factors can cause delays, including traffic jams and mass transit problems. For important appointments, such as job interviews, encourage him to take a “dry run,” to travel there beforehand in order to gauge how much travel time to set aside on the actual day. Suggest that he build in at least a 10-minute cushion of time for unexpected travel delays.
  • Teach strategies that will help your child avoid getting lost. Many people who are prone to disorientation in new places write down simple directions (e.g., how to get from the front door of the medical building to his doctor’s office or, when traveling, how to go from the elevator to the family’s hotel room). Use a “think-aloud” to demonstrate taking note of where you’ve left the car when you go to a crowded parking lot (e.g., “Okay, we’re in row 19, right in line with the main entrance to the mall”).
  • If your teen carries a cell phone, help him program frequently called phone numbers (e.g., parents, friends, emergency roadside assistance) into his phone’s directory. If he finds himself lost or in an emergency situation, he may be nervous, so being able to call for assistance at the touch of a button will be a tremendous help.

On the Way to Your Destination

  • Explain how to read Departure and Arrival boards in train stations and airports. By the time your child is in upper elementary school, you can teach lessons during your family trips, talking through the steps of traveling from door to door. For example, you might explain,” Now that we’re at this busy airport, we’re going to hold on tight to our bags and wallets. The first step is to check in. We’re flying on X Airlines. You tell me where the check-in counters are for our airline.” Talk your way through checking the Departure board for your gate, going through security, etc. Point out who your resources are (e.g., employees behind the counters, people in airline uniforms).  If you don’t travel regularly, take your teen on a “field trip” to the airport.
  • Model tying a colorful item to the handle of your suitcase when you check your baggage on family trips, and explain that practicing this strategy will make it easy for him to spot his own luggage in the baggage claim area when he travels on his own.
  • Discuss the importance of identifying appropriate resources in certain situations. “Think alouds” will help him understand your thought process. For example, you might say, “Okay, we aren’t sure where the train station is. There’s a policeman; I’ll ask him if we’re headed in the right direction.” Explain to your teen that we all get lost or disoriented at times, and that asking for help is a sign of resourcefulness rather than weakness. If he has memory problems, suggest that he repeat the directions back or, better yet, carry a notepad and pen so he can write down the directions he hears.
  • Review safe pedestrian habits, particularly if your child has a problem with depth perception and may not be able to judge the speed of oncoming vehicles. Remind him that it’s safest to use crosswalks and obey traffic signals to get from one side of a street to the other.

Special Advice for Drivers

  • If your child would like to learn to drive but you’re afraid that he might not be able to master the necessary skills due to the severity of his LD or AD/HD, contact a large hospital rehabilitation center in your area for an assessment. By using simulators to test his reaction time, depth perception, and other related skills, professionals there can determine whether the disability is severe enough to prohibit him from getting his license. If he is found to have the potential to become a safe driver but in need of extra support as he learns, the rehabilitation center should be able to recommend a local driving school attuned to the needs of those who would benefit from special instruction due to disabilities.
  • If your teen does get a driver’s license, teach him that there are both low tech and high tech ways to avoid problems. One high-tech item, a Geographical Positioning System (GPS), can help him avoid getting lost while on the road. A colorful cloth tied to the car’s radio antenna is a low-tech aide that can help him locate a parked car.
  • Explain the importance of concentrating fully on driving at all times. Talking on cell phones or changing CDs while driving are dangerous risks and illegal activities in an increasing number of states. Model safe behavior by pulling over when you need to talk on your cell phone or when you want to find a particular CD.
  • Keeping a directions file in the car is very useful, particularly if directions both to and from the destination are explicitly spelled out. A folder of directions can be stored in the glove compartment.

On the Road to Independence

Perhaps no one activity more clearly represents independence than being able to travel around on one’s own. Although there are many complex skills involved in travel and transportation, most teens with learning disabilities and AD/HD are able to learn them if they’re given explicit training and support.