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Teaching kids with LD to drive: A complex family matter

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By Melinda Sacks

Getting behind the wheel ... of a golf cart

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!"

"Slow down!"

"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.

"But you didn't make my sister wait!"

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.

Practice, practice, practice

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.

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 "