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Driver training opens doors for teens with disabilities

Apr. 18, 2019, 8:35 AM

Christy Horner, director of VUMC’s Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation Program, instructs patient Brittany Rogers during Rogers’ biweekly driver training session.
Christy Horner, director of VUMC’s Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation Program, instructs patient Brittany Rogers during Rogers’ biweekly driver training session. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Kelsey Herbers

Learning to drive can be scary for teens and parents. But for the families of teens with developmental and physical disabilities, learning whether they have the potential to drive can be just as unnerving.

By offering pre-driver evaluations for teens and young adults who have yet to receive their learner’s permit, Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences hopes to answer patients’ questions about whether the ability to drive is in their future before they invest time, money and hope into driving programs.

The evaluations assess the basic physical, visual and cognitive skills needed to safely operate a vehicle, such as the patient’s reaction speed, range of motion, coordination, depth perception, attention, memory and judgment.

For some patients, occupational therapists in the Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute can identify within as little as two hours that driving is not in their best interest. Others may be deemed ready for their learner’s permit and for practice on the roadway.

For patients who have their learner’s permit, the department offers full driver evaluations to determine their safety on the road.

Drivers who have unsafe habits can then enroll in the Driver Rehabilitation Program, which provides driver training using a specialized car. VUMC owns both a training car and van.

“Driving is like a rite of passage into adulthood for many people, so parents and teens often want to pursue it, but they need assistance in making that decision. They feel like they have to at least explore the option,” said Christy Horner, OTR/L, CDRS, director of VUMC’s driving program, who noted that many families are relieved to have a definitive answer.

The program was originally designed for experienced drivers with acquired medical conditions and expanded two years ago to include new drivers.

It now assists teens and young adults with autism, mild cerebral palsy, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, vision challenges and spinal cord conditions, such as spina bifida. Each patient population faces its own unique challenges.

“For example, patients with autism are often rule-oriented, meaning they want to stick to the rules of the roadway. But sometimes in the moment, you’ll have to choose your actions based on what’s safest, and that option might not always follow the standard rules,” said Horner. “It can be challenging for them to make that prioritization. Having the mental flexibility for situations that require in-the-moment problem solving can take time to develop.”

Horner noted that patients with autism may also be less likely to pick up on the nonverbal cues of driving, such as making eye contact with other drivers or being waved on at an intersection.

Since its expansion, the program has trained roughly 15 drivers with autism or other developmental disabilities, with additional trainings provided for patients with physical disabilities. Time spent in the program ranges from as short as four hours to as many as 50 hours.

Tennessee requires a minimum of 50 hours spent practicing with a learner’s permit to be eligible for a driver’s license.

According to Horner, an added benefit of the program is the ability to provide medical insight into a topic on which family members may disagree.

“No teen wants their parents to nitpick their driving. I’m able to come in as an objective person, taking the mom and dad off the hot seat,” said Horner.

Fuller evaluations are also available to assess the driving potential and ability of people with diagnoses such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, amputation and dementia.

Participation in the program requires a physician referral. For general questions, call the Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute at 615-936-5040.

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