How to Improve Driving Skills of Teens With ADHD

Posted Behind the Wheel with ADHD News

A study published in the June issue of JAMA Pediatrics found that teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are about one-third more likely to be involved in a car accident than people without ADHD. They’re also more likely to obtain their driver’s license at a later time.

One of the study’s researchers, Dr. Flaura Winston, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who serves as the scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that while this finding is important, it’s not necessarily cause for alarm. In fact, she calls the study’s relatively low increase in risk encouraging, saying that the statistics illustrate “that it’s a manageable risk.” Winston also stresses that getting a driver’s license later doesn’t necessarily equate to a significantly longer period of time. It may just be by a few months later, although it varies by individual. “It just may take them a little longer,” she says.

Consider Getting a License Later

Getting a license a bit later is fine with Amanda Plourde, a certified occupational therapy assistant, certified driving instructor and certified driver rehabilitation specialist at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital Network in Salem, New Hampshire. She says that ADHD teens who choose to delay obtaining their license demonstrate maturity, one of the traits she evaluates when assessing driver readiness among this age bracket.

“It’s a mature statement for them to realize this,” says Winston, who is also the vice president of the New England Traffic Safety Education Association.

But Don’t Wait Too Much Later

Ann Shanahan, an ADHD and executive functioning coach at Shanahan Sweeney Coaching in Chicago, warns of waiting too long to drive. Shanahan, who offers driver education to driving instructors, parents and teens through the program Behind the Wheel With ADHD, explains that individuals with ADHD typically have a maturational lag of three to five years compared to people without the disorder.

Therefore, many parents may feel it’s logical to have their child wait a few years beyond the minimum age requirement in their particular state.

However, she says that when a child turns 18, all that’s required in most states is six hours of class instruction, which doesn’t allow the teen with ADHD to fully understand and experience the intricacies of driving.

Encourage Sports and Exercise Involvement

Interestingly, Plourde thinks activities like biking or skiing can improve an ADHD teen’s driving skills because they allow a person to develop fast reflex times.

“I encourage parents to get their child involved in enhancing gross motor expression,” she says of such activities. “Driving is a complex social skill that requires reading other drivers and making timely, quick decisions.”

Talk to Your Child About the Seriousness of Driving

Winston says that the first time on the road presents the highest accident risk ever in a person’s life. For teens, whether they have ADHD or not, this experience brings the most likely chance of having a motor vehicle accident, which is the leading cause of death among this demographic. She explains that the transition of learning to drive with parents in the car to suddenly being alone or with a distracting passenger ups this risk. But she also says distraction transcends having a friend in the car. It also encompasses everything from hearing a cellphone ring to seeing billboards or a person across the street.

Therefore, Winston suggests that parents “start the conversation early about driving” and assess their child’s readiness to drive. She says this is essential for any child, but especially those with ADHD. “Parents may want to consider a driving rehabilitation specialist, which is typically an occupational therapist that specializes in driving.”

Plourde suggests limiting the number of passengers because “the more there are, the more distractions may arise which can increase the odds of an accident.” She explains that she may recommend not having any passengers for one year, but that if the teen has a good driving record during that time, parents should consider allowing them to have one passenger such as a best friend or sibling as a reward.

Take Medication Properly

It’s also important to have a conversation with a teen’s primary care provider and behavioral specialist. Winston says this helps ensure that ADHD medication is an active, necessary prescription that should be taken as recommended and used for an appropriate duration.

Plourde adds that an ADHD teen should “make sure meds are consistent in their system.” She also suggests staying in tune to the body’s reaction to these medications, saying that if they tend to wear off after a certain time, then driving beyond that point should be reconsidered.

Consider Helpful Apps and Resources

To help teens with ADHD and their parents, Shanahan says she developed a pre-trip app that’s compatible with iPhones as well as Android devices. It acts as a self-checking system by asking the teen a series of short, easy questions in a checklist format. Responses about the destination and whether the adolescent has passengers, sufficient gas and medication are then sent to the parent via a text message. The teen’s phone is shut down until he or she arrives at the planned location, at which time another text is sent to inform parents.

Shanahan is also involved in driving instructor webinars as well as parent webinars. Instructors sign up at designated dates and times, while parents can take one at any time. “I encourage parents to take a webinar as soon as possible, not just when their child is about to learn to drive,” she says.

Winston suggests turning to readily available resources from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Management of ADHD. You’ll find topics such as Preparing Your Teen with ADHD for Safe Driving on the center’s site.

Ask About Individualized Driving Plans

Shanahan says that in some education systems Individualized Education Programs exist. “IEPs have been successful in the academic environment,” she says, “so I developed the phrase ‘IDP,’ or ‘Individualized Driving Plan.'” Shanahan explains that while teachers are required to obtain continuing education, that’s often not the case for driving instructors, which was a large part of the impetus behind her IDP concept. “This gives instructors the opportunity to remain educated on an ongoing basis,” she adds.

She strongly suggests that parents look into IDPs or similar programs when a teen begins driving. She holds meetings to reinforce the importance of spending more time learning driver education and gaining experience while also making sure the teen truly understands everything about his or her brain differences and driving habits compared to the non-ADHD adolescent.

“Parents can make sure schools as well as driving instructors understand the importance of IDPs,” she says.

Plan Logically

Many tips to help an ADHD teen improve their driving skills are steeped in common sense.

Plourde says it’s beneficial to avoid rush hour, take a slower route as opposed to a highway and limit radio use.

Winston agrees, adding that starting with familiar routes and daylight hours is ideal. She explains that parents should still be involved in the driving process even after their child has been on the road for a bit, especially to help review a new route. Another good practice for any individual, she says, is to always wear seat belts.

“It’s incumbent on parents, schools and the teenager to focus on the seriousness behind driving, especially when ADHD is involved,” Winston says. “Don’t ignore it, but manage it like anything else. Their safe mobility is essential.”

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