By Melinda Sacks
All parents worry when their children reach driving age and blurt out the inevitable question, "When can I get my license?"
But for those of us whose children are distractible, hyperactive, impulsive, or learning disabled (LD), the question is much more complex. Not only is it worrisome to think of the impact of these qualities on mastering the driver's education manual on the rules of the road, and the written test covering copious material that must be memorized, but the idea of a new driver with any sort of disability that impacts concentration taking to the road in a two-ton vehicle can be downright frightening.
This spring, we joined the ranks of concerned parents as our son Alex turned 16 and announced he wanted to learn to drive. As a fan of racing video games, and the owner of a life-sized steering wheel and gas pedal that attach to our home computer, our son figured he was ready to go. After all, he asked, how much harder could real driving be than his favorite game, "Crazy Taxi"? (The game's name says a lot about our fears.)
For the months preceding Alex's 16th birthday we circumvented the question of driving by telling him he had to make the call to sign himself up for driver's education at the local driving school. For whatever reason, he never seemed to get around to it. And we were secretly relieved.
But now that it's summer and his friends are taking driving classes, we can no longer dodge the issue.
While most kids find the driver's education course to be long (six hours a day for four days in California), most don't consider it particularly difficult. Not so for kids with LD, who like Alex, may find the in-class reading and frequent tests a significant struggle. And peer pressure, performance anxiety, and the group setting is, for many, far from ideal.
Thankfully an increasing number of programs are offering online driver's education, which is a great solution if you have a child like ours who enjoys the computer, needs to take his time digesting material, and feels pressured and uncomfortable in big groups.
If you don't have a computer or don't want your child online, many of these programs offer printed booklets that contain the same content.
Beware, though, that the at-home course isn't always a complete solution. When I went online and searched for online driving schools, there were myriad choices but I had a hard time telling how they differed. Once I chose a course and registered Alex, he wanted to start right away. But within 20 minutes he had given up, discouraged by the first chapter, which was so text-heavy that he was exhausted after reading just a few pages of small print.
Before you embark on the driver's education road with your teen, be sure to check the requirements for the state where you live. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of variation. Thirty-six states require teens to have a driving permit, 23 of them require the permit be held for at least six months before they can apply for a driver's license. Graduated licenses - those that allow a new driver incremental privileges to drive alone or carry passengers under age 21 - are increasingly common and also differ from one state to another. Even the age at which you can obtain a permit or driver's license differs across the country. Your local Department of Motor Vehicles can provide the specifics for where you live.
Driving schools also vary in approach and curriculum, although all are required to cover the same material in their final exams. Some courses, we found, are much more "friendly" to kids with LD, providing more interactive materials and experiences, including videos, computer simulations, and group work. Some contain just one final exam that encompasses the entire course curriculum, while others are broken into chapter tests.
You can also decide to conduct the driving lessons yourself, but we felt it was worth the cost to give Alex a professional introduction to driving.
As is true with many issues around parenting a child with LD, staying involved and applying what you know about your teen's strengths and weaknesses factor heavily into how you can help him learn to drive.
Knowing our son loves video games that glorify speeding, and in some cases, even crashing, we had long ago embarked on a heavy campaign to talk about driver safety. The fact that I had been in a serious car accident before I was married gave us plenty of ammunition for our discussions. On the road, we tried to point out mistakes other drivers made, and potential hazards such as kids on bikes, dogs near the road, and cars running red lights. Real driving, we said over and over, bears no resemblance to a video game.
We also repeatedly recited one line from Alex's driver education book describing driving a car: "Dangerous as a loaded gun if not operated properly."
Because Alex is such a weak reader, we were also concerned about how much he would digest from the home study driver's education booklet we chose. The 154-page soft cover book has fairly big print, which was a plus, but like all the home study books, it is quite text heavy.
Even though we knew it would take forever, we decided we would read the book aloud with Alex. Taking turns with the reading, then doing the chapter quizzes together, gave my husband and me a firsthand look at how well Alex understood the material. When he seemed to glaze over, we'd stop. We broke the lessons into small segments and did just a little at a time. We told stories about our own experiences as we read, hoping the real-life scenarios would help impress certain points upon him.
My brother, who has a dyslexic daughter, found that for her, an online course produced by www.penschool.com was ideal because there was no big final test, just small quizzes along the way. The 30-day completion policy requiring students to complete the course within 30 days of when they started was great incentive for her to finish.
At our house I was in no hurry to put Alex behind the wheel, so the fact that there was no time limit and we could go at our own pace was a huge plus.
No matter how long you stall, the day will come when your teen slides into the driver's seat and you give up control of the car. This is a day I was not looking forward to, so I was delighted when we happened upon an interim solution that eased the way.
It turns out that starting out in a golf cart is a great way to give a new driver the feeling of operating a moving vehicle with two pedals. It is a relief to introduce the challenges of negotiating parking spaces, tight turns and oncoming traffic in a small, battery-powered vehicle that won't exceed 5-10 miles an hour.
With Alex behind the wheel of the little electric golf cart we borrowed, we set off on paved paths that were mostly unpopulated for our practice.
At first, his driving was jerky, and my non-stop instructions punctuated every second of our short trips, leaving us both exhausted.
"You're too close to the curb!"
"Watch out for that bump!"
"Stay on your side of the road!"
And, "Do you see that bicycle?"
But little by little, Alex learned to watch for obstacles, smoothed his acceleration and braking, figured out how to make a three-cornered turn, and even parallel parked. Thankfully it was all done at about 5 mph.
It turns out that behind the wheel, Alex is far more conservative than I expected, and he is in fact overly concerned with kids, pedestrians and other cars, often stopping to wait for them when they were far, far away.
One problem we didn't anticipate was the sibling rivalry that occurred when Alex realized we were stalling letting him drive, something we had not done with his older sister (who does not have LD). No amount of explanation or justification seemed to satisfy him.
The only approach we could take was to be honest. We revisited our reasons for taking it slow, and offered to drive him anywhere he needed to go. He wasn't pleased when it involved outings such as going to the movies with a girl, but we pointed out numerous times that due to our graduated licensing laws, even if he had his license, he wouldn't be allowed to drive other teens for six months.
The fact that in our state parents are required by law to spend 50 hours with their teen driving was a plus for our family. We figured the more time Alex spent practicing driving in a very controlled situation, the better.
I decided long ago that teaching our kids to drive was my husband's job, since he tends to be unflappable, a word that does not describe me. And while many parents let their new driver get behind the wheel with the entire family in the car, we did not go this route with Alex. The less distraction and the fewer people around, the better, so he and his dad are going to be spending a lot of quality time together.
It is still unclear when, exactly, Alex will be ready to get his license. But we are determined that by the time he goes to take the test, we will be sure he will not be a hazard on the road - to others or to himself.
Some things just can't be hurried, and learning to drive is one of them.