Even Special Needs Teens Will Want to Drive. So How do You Handle This?

Even Special Needs Teens Will Want to Drive. So How do You Handle This?

All parents approach the idea of their teenager learning to drive with a certain amount of trepidation.

Will she use good judgment? Will he avoid distracted driving? Will she stay focused on the task of driving no matter who else is in the car?

These are questions that occur to parents, but the underlying issue is the most critical: Can my teenager learn to drive safely before anything drastic or serious happens to them in an auto?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers, accounting for more than one in three deaths in this age group. In 2009, eight teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes. Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, however, they account for 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females.

While these statistics are scary enough, what if you have a special needs teen? A recent survey by The Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia’s Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies found that two-thirds of teenagers with a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD) who are of legal driving age are currently are driving or plan to drive. This study was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

HFASD is characterized by subtle impairments in social interaction, communication, motor skills and coordination, and by a difficulty in regulating emotions. Many – if not all – of these capabilities come into play when driving.

There is little, if any, research on how being diagnosed as HFASD affects an adolescent’s ability to drive safely. Yet, because driving is such a rite of passage, particularly for American adolescent males, it is also likely to be an issue for teens with HFASD. But, if you are the parent of a teen with HFASD, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or ADHD, your adolescent will likely ask to take driver’s lessons or be permitted to learn how to drive.

It’s very common, according Patty Huang, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and lead author of the study on HFASD and driving, for parents to ask how they should handle their child’s request to learn to drive.

In order to determine if your HFASD or special needs teen is ready to drive, researchers indicate it might be helpful to make an appointment with a specialist, such as an occupational therapist or a driving instructor, who will be in a better position to offer guidance on how to break driving lessons down into steps that are easier for teens with special needs to understand and put into practice.

The Interactive Autism Network Community website has addressed the issue of HFASD individuals learning to drive. While all teenagers share a common set of traits when it comes to driving – including inexperience and impulsivity – those adolescents with HFASD will struggle with other traits that will affect their ability to drive well. For example, it is indicated that HFASD young people may not be able to quickly size up and react to the “big picture” of a driving situation. Furthermore, they may have more delayed responses to the actions, attitudes, and intentions of other drivers. And they may not always be able to keep calm without becoming overly anxious or angry.

Teen Drivers Source, a website sponsored by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, points out that there are three key stages leading up to driving readiness for any teen with special needs:

  • Assessing fitness to drive. That may involve meeting with a pediatrician or an occupational therapist.
  • Providing adequate driver training. Every teen needs at least 50 hours of supervised driving practice under a variety of road conditions, but teens with special needs will require even more time. You may want to postpone independent driving until you are sure your adolescent consistently demonstrates good judgment on the road.
  • Address problems if a crash occurs. Your child should be prepared for a crash by planning with you as to how she needs to respond. After an accident occurs, then you and your teen need to try to figure out why it happened and take steps to prevent a future crash.

Very Early Screening for Autism may be Inappropriate

Very Early Screening for Autism may be Inappropriate

Because of the growing number of articles and public service announcements about autism, more parents of young children are concerned about autism in their child.

Often when worried mothers and fathers contact me, they don’t come right out and say they think their child might be autistic, but the implication is very clear. For example, Cindy, the mother of one-year-old Joshua, said this:

“I’m worried about my son and I need advice,” Cindy said. “Joshua doesn’t have good eye contact with people and he isn’t talking yet. I’m concerned that something might be wrong with him.”

And Sid, the father of a six-month-old child, said: “My daughter doesn’t seem to have the kinds of social skills I would expect of a child her age. She doesn’t babble and she just seems to look through you when you talk to her.”

Both of these parents had heard that more and more young children are currently being diagnosed with autism and they wondered if their child was one of those children with the disorder.

A research study conducted at the University of California at Davis, and recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, helps to shed light on when parents can expect symptoms of autism to show up.

Following children from birth to beyond age three, the researchers found that symptoms of autism do not show up by six months of age, but do emerge between six and 12 months. The symptoms – a lack of shared eye contact, smiling, and communicative babbling – only emerge gradually after six months. When researchers compared normally developing children with those later diagnosed with autism, there were virtually no differences at six months of age. By months 12 through 18, though, the infants who developed autism showed declines in social communication, including rapid declines in eye contact, declines in social smiling, and declines in every other measure conducted by the researchers.

So, while most children will appear similar during the first six months of life, there are declines in social skills after that for children who develop autism. The loss of skills seen in autistic children continues past 12 and 18 months and often continues well into the second and third years of life. Autism, this study points out, has a slow, gradual onset of symptoms, rather than a very abrupt loss of skills.

This research is valuable because it was meticulously conducted evaluating children at five different ages on a series of widely used diagnostic tools. In addition, the researchers recorded the exact numbers of social and communicative behaviors displayed by the children during evaluation sessions. Also, the way this longitudinal study was conducted eliminated any reliance on the memory of the parents, which has been found to be somewhat faulty in remembering what behaviors their children displayed at different ages and stages.

The significance of this study for parents and pediatricians is that screening for autism early in the first year of life will not be successful very often as the symptoms don’t really appear until the second half of the first year. Furthermore, screenings for autism should focus on social behaviors, since these are the skills that decline. And, finally, screening should take place between 12 months and 36 months as symptom emergence is gradual during this period of growth for children.

It is estimated that about one in 100 American children are diagnosed with autism. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, while it is known that genetics may play a strong role in autism, the exact cause is not known. The guidelines for pediatricians advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children be screened at 18 months and 24 months during well-child visits or if the parents raise a concern.

These guidelines seem very appropriate given this latest study. But, again, if you are a parent of an infant, keep in mind that very likely no symptoms of autism will be apparent before the end of the first year.