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Teaching kids with LD to drive: A complex family matter

One mother explains why parents need to be extra patient and take precautions when teaching kids with learning disabilities to drive.

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.

Driver's education isn't easy for teens with LD

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.

Comments from readers

"Great article, Melinda. We own a driving school in Michigan that specializes in helping kids with special needs learn to drive. It is amazing how little information there is about this subject (many of our customers were not even aware there were such services available, even after considerable searching). Good luck with your son. The golf cart is a good idea, but there are some reasonably good simulation programs out there as well. Mark Spruell "