The Dyspraxic Doctor's Guide To: Learning to Drive
I’m often asked by other dyspraxic people or parents of teenagers with SEND about learning to drive. Of course, learning to drive isn’t usually a stress-free process for anyone, but there are definitely other factors which mean driving is more difficult for people like me. Hopefully by outlining what I found difficult when learning to drive (and why) and giving some tips about how to make this easier will make the process smoother for you or your son/daughter.
So why the difficulty?
Driving involves a lot of the following skills, which are often trickier for us to master...
Moving different bits of the body at the same time but in different ways
Maintaining a good posture whilst concentrating on other movement tasks (this can why driving makes our backs sore)
Driving entails paying attention to a lot of different sensory input at the same time. The main ones used in driving are your sight, your hearing and your proprioception. Proprioception is involved in sensing where different bits of the body are and the appropriate amount of pressure to put through them, for example when using pedals.
If you are under or over sensitive to one or more of these senses, you may find it more difficult to choose which inputs to pay attention to. Many people with sensory processing difficulties (which accompany a lot of neurodevelopmental conditions such as Dyspraxia, ADHD and Autism) feel like they have no filter for the input that comes in through the eyes, ears, nose or skin. This is why for example most people are able to ‘zone out’ the background hubbub in a crowd to focus on a conversation, whereas my brain naturally pays attention to all the other noises that are going on around me, meaning the conversation feels like it’s nearly drowned out by other noise. When driving, the process of choosing what to pay attention to is really important, and this is a more active (requiring concentration rather than happening naturally) process for those of us with sensory differences.
Linked in with the sensory information above, the ability to sustain attention on a specific task can require a lot more of our energy and reserves than other people.
Sequencing, planning and predicting
Driving requires a lot of anticipation of what other people may do, as well as predicting the consequences of your own actions. This involves mental planning and quick reactions. It also requires doing things in the right order (sequencing). Many of the dyspraxic children and adults I see have to practise sequences of movements many many times over to ingrain them in memory. If you are having to think about the next step of each process (rather than it occurring ‘naturally’ or as part of a learned sequence) this becomes tricky. And this isn’t just the complex sequence of a roundabout or using gears, it can be simple things too – such as remembering to take your seatbelt off before trying to get out of the car.
I can’t picture a route in my mind at all. I got lost only yesterday driving back from a friend’s home. I’ve driven there literally hundreds of times. If you have this difficulty on top of driving it can make a journey anxiety provoking and frustrating.
For a lot of people who have grown up finding things which other people take for granted very difficult or impossible, self-esteem and confidence in their own ability can be really low. It can be difficult to overcome that anxiety and the ‘I’ll never be able to do this’ chatter. Following on from this, if you do make a mistake (which we all do when we’re learning) it can be difficult to get over the frustration with yourself and not to just give up and give in to the voice that says a mistake means that you were right and you never should’ve done it anyway.
So what can we do to overcome all of this, or help someone we love overcome all of this, to actually learn to drive?
1. Knowledge is power!
The reason I started with explanations of why we find it more difficult is because actually knowing this is pretty powerful. When I learnt to drive, I knew I found it more difficult than other teenagers, but I didn’t know why. Not knowing which bits of driving are tricky for you or your son/daughter means you have no idea where to start with making the whole thing more achievable for them. So the first step is understanding how the differences in processing and moving will likely affect learning to drive. This includes anyone supporting the person to drive. If you are able to find a driving instructor who has some knowledge of your specific learning difficulty, great (there is a list of driving instructors in the UK who have disability awareness in the driving section here), but if not then the relationship is important. Having some information printed out for them and a rough idea of what you will find difficult or what helps you learn, can make the whole experience much more productive. Don’t persist with an instructor who doesn’t listen or you don’t feel understood by.
2. Realistic expectations
Paired with the above, appreciating that it may be more difficult but maintaining a positive attitude is vital. Writing down even the small successes helps you to pay more attention to them and builds confidence. Patience and praise from those around the learner driver can make a big difference.
Along this line, I learned to drive with an instructor and a bit of input from an uncle. Whereas my non-dyspraxic brother learned with my mum. Learning to drive was more expensive for me. But there was no way that my mum could help me to practice as I needed quite a lot of support and correction, and as a teenager I just wouldn’t have accepted this from a parent.
In the other direction, not expecting the learner driver to fail is important too! Many people with all sorts of different difficulties can learn to drive safely. I have severe dyspraxia but I can drive. I know of autistic people and people with ADHD who drive. Of course there are people who can’t master driving, but it’s equally important to realise that lots of us do drive and keep that encouragement in mind.
3. Using adaptations and aids
If you need to learn in an automatic car, rather than a manual, rely on parking sensors, or you need to use a satnav to pop to the shops (I do!), who cares?! There is a lot of strange bravado about learning to drive a certain way. If adapting things or relying on an aid makes things easier for you or your son/daughter, I don’t really see the point in persisting without. The key skill is learning to drive. Anything else is a bonus.
4. Learning to drive in stages
For those of us with sensory, motor or sequencing difficulties, breaking the whole task down into different parts can be really helpful. Getting confident at using the pedals or using the steering wheel, before practising on the road, is an example. Some driving centres use simulator cars for this purpose, and I actually found this really helpful to start with. It meant I could get myself familiar with the movements and pressure to use on the pedals before I was ever in control of a car on the road.
Talking about a process and drawing it or showing it first (more than once) can really help too. I didn’t understand what my driving instructor meant by positioning when turning a corner when he explained whilst I was driving, but when I could see it on a simple drawing and relate this to the road when standing outside the car, it made a lot more sense.
5. Keep it simple, and repeat, repeat, repeat
Sometimes things that seem very obvious may not occur to those of us with learning differences. Explain which way round the roundabout to go, which lane to be in for an exit. Calm, one step commands reduce the amount the brain needs to process when starting out. Go over and over the sequences until they are securely stored! It helped me to stay on track and recall when I said them aloud to myself. It may take ages for this to stick, so expect to need to practice this and be patient.
6. Make sure the seat and car are comfortable
Often when paying attention to a new task it can be difficult to pay attention to your posture too. Using cushion or supports in the seat to reduce how uncomfortable it is can help.
Likewise, making a point of checking simple things like the temperature, amount of noise (radio volume or distracting friends!), clothing, brightness and air flow before you set off, and adjusting them if necessary, can reduce the amount of sensory overload and distractions.
Lastly, for anyone learning to drive having a written plan of what to do in the case of a breakdown or accident is important, as well as the necessary equipment, in an easily accessible place.
I hope that helps and if you are looking for further information about driving pop to the section on the Dyspraxia Resource Bank.
The DVLA in the UK have a section about the legalities of driving with a disability or medical condition here: https://www.gov.uk/driving-medical-conditions
Dr Emma Tremaine trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist before starting up a social enterprise specialising in comprehensively supporting adults and young people with Dyspraxia (The Dyspraxic Doctor). She also provides regular emotional and social skills therapy for children and young people who have a neurodevelopmental diagnosis (including Autism/Aspergers and ADHD). Dr Emma has Dyspraxia herself and is a passionate writer and speaker about neurodiversity, mental health and her own experience becoming a doctor with a hidden disability. She also enjoys horse riding, yoga, amateur sewing and making people laugh.