Students with special needs get special help behind the wheel

Christopher Chavez looks forward to the day he can earn his license and drive himself to his karate lessons and the job he hopes to have one day.

It isn't as easy as it sounds.

A senior at St. Charles East High School, Christopher, 18, has autism and an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He was able to pass the written exam for his permit, but struggled behind the wheel in the school's driver's education program.

Experts say students with such disorders are challenged in their ability to pay attention, switch focus and remember details. Behind the wheel, they can be easily distracted by billboards and are more prone to road rage, said Gayle Sweeney of Chicago-based Behind the Wheel with ADHD, a group that works with teen drivers. Perhaps most significantly, the group says teens with ADHD are four times as likely to have accidents.

The group created an instructional program and recently trained Lombard-based Top Driver School instructors on how to implement it. The private driving school then created its own unique curriculum for students like Christopher.

Jim Mihalovich, Top Driver's director of curriculum and training, noticed an uptick in the number of high school students struggling with traditional curriculum who have an alternative learning plan, often called an individualized education program, or IEP, tailored specifically for them.

"That's when we realized that if these students are requiring special attention in the classroom, they will also need special attention in the vehicle," Mihalovich said. The philosophy of the program is to ingrain behaviors and routines, making it less likely for the teens to get distracted. It's done in a nurturing environment emphasizing coaching over criticism.

Students begin with a meeting of their parents and Mihalovich, very much like their IEP session at school. Then, they begin 30 hours of classroom training and receive a customized classroom workbook developed to meet their individual needs.

"We want to make sure we get them on the right track so as they move forward and practice with their parents, they are ultimately driving alone," Mihalovich said.

<h3 class="breakHead">Like playing sports</h3>

Christopher is now in the behind-the-wheel portion of the program. His parents have noticed improvement in their son's driving skills and confidence.

"Chris is also aware of the things he needs to do in order to be a safe driver," his dad Juan Chavez said.

Mihalovich notes that every child's medical needs and challenges differ. Not all students will be able to drive themselves to work or school, so Mihalovich says it's important to set realistic goals.

"Sometimes the goal is just for them to be able drive safely when accompanied by a parent," he said. "Other students, after training, find they're able to be a safe, responsible driver on their own."

He compared driving to playing a sport or an instrument. Much like practice, it's often beneficial for young drivers with special needs to create a set of routines that eliminate many of the risky behaviors associated with ADHD and driving.

"Practice is key to getting them to act without thought when certain things present themselves," he said.

<h3 class="breakHead">Coach, don't criticize</h3>

While the goals and driving lessons are individual to each student, the way in which they are conveyed is always the same. Mihalovich said it's important that each instructor uses a coaching approach as opposed to standard instruction.

"It's not our goal, at any point, to discourage the student from driving or have them create a fear of driving," Mihalovich said. "We are always positive and accentuate what they did correctly."

That approach was enough to convince Sue Pignetti to fly from Spring, Texas, with her 18-year-old daughter Valerie for a recent two-day session with Mihalovich. Pignetti said she was unable to find any local programs that would evaluate her daughter's driving skills and correct some difficulties.

Valerie, who has an executive functioning deficit - difficulty in staying on task - has been licensed for two years but still struggles with certain aspects of driving; backing up, for instance, has posed a particular challenge.

"Jim and his program are fantastic, and Valerie really responded to his coaching technique," her mother said. "It's immediately very clear how very passionate he is about helping people achieve a goal that could help make them more independent. He needs to clone himself about 50 times so everyone who needs this help could get it closer to home."

Sweeney, of Behind the Wheel with ADHD, said she would like to train as many driving instructors and teachers as possible across the country. To that end, she's upgraded the program to make it available as an online training webinar.

"Our goal is to get this training in the hands of driving schools everywhere," Sweeney said. "We're in a handful of states now, but we want to be in all of them."

  Top Driver is one of a few Illinois driving schools now offering specialized curriculum for young drivers with special needs. Paul Michna/

Teen drivers with ADHD

• More likely to have received repeated traffic citations, mainly for speeding

• Injured three times as often in car crashes

• Nearly four times more likely to have an accident

• Six to eight times more likely to have their license suspended or revoked

• More likely to have driven an automobile without adult supervision prior to becoming a licensed driver

Source: Behind the Wheel with ADHD

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