Americans love cars, and depending on where you live, they’re of critical importance because of the way our transportation system works. If you don’t live in an urban area with widespread public transit, driving is the only way to get to work, school, doctor’s office, the grocery store and other essential destinations.
One of the many tricky decisions parents of young people with disabilities must face is whether their child is ready to get behind the wheel and drive a car independently. There can be tremendous pressure from peers and parents alike for teens to learn to drive at age 16 or 17 even though they may not be ready yet. Young people on the autism spectrum or with ADHD are particularly vulnerable on the road because of motor skills deficits, sensory processing issues, and even difficulties with social skills and non-verbal communication.
“Young people with disabilities are at much greater risk for accidents while driving,” says Miriam Monahan, an occupational therapist and driving instructor who works with students with disabilities. Monahan is chief science officer for Drive Fit Inc., a company that has developed an iPad® app that features interactive video driving simulations. The app coaches young drivers on how to recognize critical items on the road such as pedestrians or another vehicle that brakes suddenly.
“We know that our kids may not develop the executive functioning and sensory skills they need to be able to drive as early as their typical peers. That means they need extra time to learn and practice before they can safely drive independently,” Monahan continued.
“It’s important to think about driving as just one part of a continuum of community mobility skills that a young person with a disability should start developing—that includes also learning how to ride a bike, take public transportation, and even practicing activities like pushing a grocery cart while shopping or using a lawn mower,” added Linda Mason, MS OTR/L, one of the occupational therapists at the Y.A.L.E. School’s Cherry Hill campus.
Along with Y.A.L.E.’s high school and transition team staff members, Mason has been involved in developing a community mobility training program for our students that encompasses many of these areas. Whether learning to take the PATCO high speed train during community-based instruction, planning which bus route to take, or using AccessLink, Y.A.L.E. students begin preparing for independent mobility as early as age 14.
Technological advances in driver training and rehabilitation research
Recently Y.A.L.E. instituted a new driving simulator program for young adults enrolled in the Standard 9 transition program. Students practice the basics of driving using a state-of-the-art virtual driving simulator located on campus. The advanced DriveSafety® simulator software takes the students through the basics of driving step by step, starting with timed trials on simple motor skills like turning the steering wheel and pressing the gas pedal. Another student or a teacher acts as “passenger” using a tablet computer to control the tests and give feedback to the student in the “driver’s seat” after each task is completed. Eventually students work their way up to a realistic road test scenario that looks similar to a video game.
To train our staff to begin implementing the driving simulator, Y.A.L.E. invited Dr. Johnell Brooks Ph.D. from Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research to our Cherry Hill campus. Dr. Brooks is a professor at Clemson and a Human Factors Psychologist who uses driving simulators in her research with people on the autism spectrum, the elderly, patients who are undergoing physical rehabilitation and others in a clinical setting.
Dr. Brooks joined Ms. Monahan and Ms. Mason to host a special evening workshop presentation at Y.A.L.E. School for parents in early October. The workshop outlined the findings that Brooks and her colleagues and Monahan’s Drive Fit software have collected regarding students with disabilities such as autism/Asperger’s and ADHD. They presented helpful information for parents about the unique challenges these young adults and their families face when beginning to drive or use transit as modes of independent mobility.
Helpful tips and advice for parents and guardians
Here’s a brief summary of some strategies and tips for parents who are approaching the issue of driving with their special needs children, as presented by Brooks and Monahan:
- Students with special needs usually require a driving instructor who is especially patient and can present lessons very slowly, focusing on just one skill at time. This allows students to learn at their own pace and master basic skills before moving on to more complex routines.
- Parents can help teens prepare for independent mobility by encouraging them to pursue activities that sharpen planning, problem solving, spatial reasoning, organization, and motor skills such as pushing a shopping cart, using a lawnmower, driving a golf cart, and even household tasks like doing laundry.
- Although students may not be ready to drive as early as typical peers, they can often eventually reach that point after a few additional years of training and practice.
- One of the areas that can be even more important to practice than driving-related motor skills is social skills; extra time should be spent learning to interpret subtle behaviors of other drivers and predict how they may behave on the road in unexpected ways. Additionally, teens on the spectrum may need extra practice observing “unwritten rules” and driving etiquette that aren’t covered by the state driver’s test.
- Young drivers on the spectrum have more trouble observing the “big picture” of their environment while driving and may only recognize individual components, e.g. seeing the green light ahead but not noticing the jaywalking pedestrian about to step out into traffic. They also need to learn how to “tune out” sensory distractions like an uncomfortable seat belt or loud radio.
- Help your child develop planning and problem solving abilities that can be generalized and applied to many different transportation options so that even if independent driving isn’t one of his or her goals, he or she is still prepared for the unexpected such as a missed bus, a late train etc.
We invited Ms. Monahan to sit down with us for an interview video to chat about her experiences as an OT and driving instructor. You can view the video above and access other videos like this on our website at www.yaleschool.com/category/video
Learn more about Y.A.L.E. School’s Standard 9 transition program at www.yaleschool.com/s9
The Drive Fit® iPad® app is available for anyone to download on the iTunes App Store® at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/drive-fit/id881318385 and you can learn more about Drive Fit® at their website, drivefit.org
Dr. Johnell Brooks will continue to advise Y.A.L.E. School staff on the use of the DriveSafety® simulator and monitor the students’ progress as part of her ongoing research. You can learn more about Dr. Brooks and see the simulator in action by watching Clemson University’s video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyJGeBPD4zo
Dr. Johnell Brooks and DriveSafety Simulator on YouTube