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Teen with Brain Injury Wants to Get a Driver’s License
Categories: Brain Injury


By Jennifer Silber-Carr, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA
Joanie Willard, MSW, LICSW, CBIST

Question: My 16-year-old son just got his driver’s license, a milestone my 18-year-old son with brain injury has not been able to achieve. How can we celebrate one child’s success without making the other one feel frustrated and unhappy?

Answer: You have described a problem familiar to all parents who have two or more children. One child may excel at sports while the other does not; one may outshine the other when it comes to academic honors. Things are not always equal – especially when one child has brain injury, an autism spectrum disorder, or some other disability.

Of course you want to praise your typically developing son and celebrate his success. But it is just as important to acknowledge the feeling of sadness your son with brain injury is experiencing. You might say something like, “It must be hard for you when your younger brother is getting his license and that’s not something you can do right now.”

Encourage him to focus on his own milestones and gains. “Maybe you can’t get a driver’s license, but let’s look at the ways you have improved yourself. Remember how you used to need assistance with dressing and feeding? Remember when you couldn’t read on your own? Now you can do all those things, and so much more.”

If you think it may be possible for your son with brain injury to obtain a driver’s license some time in the future – and this is something he wants to do – there are several steps you can take:
  • Put the responsibility on him. Ask him to read a driver’s training manual or visit a training class. Sometimes, just learning about all the requirements will be enough for him to determine if this is something he really wants to pursue or if obtaining a driver’s license is not possible.
  • Seek out a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) who can conduct an assessment of his cognitive (thinking) abilities, including reaction time, judgment, reasoning, and visual spatial skills. This evaluation will help the CDRS determine if your son needs adaptive equipment and/or additional skills training.
  • Schedule an “on-the-road” test that may be conducted with a driving simulator.

Even if your son receives a green light to proceed with driver’s training, be aware that he may need to spend a significant amount of time practicing driving with a CDRS, and, depending upon his physical disabilities, you may need to make significant modifications to the car he will be driving.

However, if the initial evaluations indicate that it would not be safe for him to drive, the CDRS would be the person to give him that news. Having an outside authority make this determination can be very helpful for parents.

Keep in mind that the end goal of learning to drive is to become more independent. If it has been determined that your son will not be able to drive, you could help him become more independent by teaching him how to use public transportation effectively and safely, or by enrolling him in a travel training course that will address safe transportation. He might also be able to learn navigation skills and become a “co-pilot” when another family member is driving.

At the same time, you also want to continue to help your typically developing son feel okay about celebrating his achievements – whether he is getting his driver’s license, going to the prom, or graduating from high school.

Acknowledging the fact that things are not always the same can be challenging, but life can be smoother at home if everyone in your family does their best to recognize and celebrate one another’s successes.

Dr. Jennifer Silber-Carr is Clinical Director for the May Center School for Brain Injury and Neurobehavioral Disorders in Brockton, where she oversees the behavioral programming for all students using applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Joanie Willard is Director of Family Services and a Clinical Social Worker for the school. Family Services provides case coordination and support to families, assisting them at May Institute, and as they transition to the next step. Family Services also provides individual and group counseling to students.

For more information about the May Center School for Brain Injury and Neurobehavioral Disorders, contact Andrea Potoczny-Gray, Executive Director, at 508.588.8800 (x2124).

May Institute is a national nonprofit organization that provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral health services to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and behavioral health needs. In addition to the Brockton, Mass. school, May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800-778-7601.