Dyslexia and Driving an Automobile
By: Dale S. Brown
Tom, a handsome twenty-seven-year old man who had dyslexia
faced serious problems learning to drive a car. He failed his
driving test several times in high school. He worked on learning
to drive in college, but never bothered to take the test again.
Now as an adult, he realized he would have to learn driving the
same slow, steady and disciplined way that he learned to read.
He was determined to learn however.
He would have to drill himself on the location of the accelerator
and brake. Learning park, reverse, neutral and drive would take
extra practice. He would also have improve his navigation
abilities, such as reading maps, and locating and reading signs
quickly enough to use the information.
Learning to read took several tutors, lots of practice, and
disciplined persistence. It was big step in his life. He thought
reading would solve all of his problems! Well, it did help. He had
a good job, was married, and had a child. But issues involving his
learning disabilities kept on coming up. And his inability to drive
was a major one, even though his home was a bus-ride away
from his job. He knew that he would need to learn to drive – or
depend on his wife and friends for mobility.
Tom has perceptual problems, which are a major cause of
learning disabilities and sometimes co-exist with dyslexia.
Perceptual problems can cause great difficulty in learning to
drive. People with perceptual problems receive inaccurate
information through their senses and/or have trouble processing
that information. Like static on the radio or a bad TV picture, the
information becomes garbled as it travels from the eye, ear, skin
or the brain.
Many people with dyslexia do not have perceptual problems. As a
matter of fact, many people with dyslexia have strengths in the
areas of spatial relationships and/or eye hand coordination. They
find driving an automobile easy. Some people with dyslexia are
superior at driving and even take jobs such as truck driving.
However, there are some dyslexics who find it difficult to drive.
Tom is presented as a composite character of such a person.
For those people who can drive but have severe difficulty
reading, the driver’s test is a key barrier. Fortunately, it is often
possible to take the test orally. The Americans with Disabilities
Act can be used to make a strong request for reasonable
Tom had bad memories of his experience in the driver’s
education class in his high school. Students went out with four
other students and the instructor in a car to learn to drive. He
found it overwhelming and scary. He felt as if there was too
much going on at once. The seat shook, the car seemed to lurch
forward when his foot touched the accelerator, and the road, the
fence around the driving range, and the grass seemed to be
moving quickly around the car. The car motor was roaring, the
driving instructor was shouting, and his hands were slick with
sweat from gripping the steering wheel. His fellow students
calmed down after some initial nervousness and he did his best
to keep his fears to himself.
Some of Tom’s problems were due to his difficulty in controlling
his attention. Most people automatically sort out the important
sensations from the irrelevant ones. But Tom’s brain could not do
that with ease. He was paying attention to everything at once,
which made him feel scattered and confused. He had to
consciously slow his breathing, relax his muscles, and look and
listen carefully. He had to work to be relaxed, alert, and aware.
Some people with perceptual problems have the opposite
reaction. They have to push themselves to pay enough attention
an see and hear what they need to drive.
Tom also had trouble seeing accurately and associating the
movement of the car with the actions of his hands on the
steering wheel. As a youngster, he had difficulty learning to ride
a bike and kept falling down. As a young adult, he had difficulty
steering a canoe. He hoped that his hard work mastering the
canoe would help him drive.
Tom looked for a driving instructor. He found that most driving
instructors did not have experience with perceptual problems and
dyslexia. Many commercial driving instructors do not have
training in how to teach driving. The job of driving instructor is
often part-time and is sometimes used as a way of earning a
salary between jobs.
It took a long time to find someone. He checked with local
groups that worked with people who have dyslexia. Finally, he
heard from a mother of a dyslexic teenager who had trouble
learning to drive. He contacted the driving instructor. The driving
instructor knew about dyslexia and had taught his dyslexic
daughter to drive.
Tom was pleased to be able to work in a car that had dual
controls. He could practice driving, but the instructor also had a
brake and steering wheel and could take over if necessary. The
instructor had him practice on a winding, flat road to learn to
turn the steering wheel the right amount for each curve of the
street. Then he practiced on a hilly but straight road to learn to
keep a constant speed by pressing down on the accelerator when
he went up a hill and releasing it a bit when going down. Then he
practiced on roads that were both hilly and winding. This stepby-
step learning process is the best way to teach many people
with dyslexia. The driving instructor carefully taught him merges,
passing another vehicle, backing up, right-of-way rules, parallel
parking, and many other skills of competent driving.
Tom also had difficulty intuitively knowing left from right. That is
why he had to work hard learning to reliably distinguish the
accelerator from the brake. It took a lot of drill and practice. He
practiced left and right turns over and over again to remember
that right turns are close to the curve (right’s tight.) And that left
turns were away from the curve (left’s loose). Sometimes, he
stopped on corners while he was walking and scanned the
environment as if he were a driver. He would imagine himself
making left and right turns.
Tom spent a full six months learning to drive. He showed courage
and determination, particularly when you consider his disability
was invisible. Nobody but his close friends and the driving
instructor recognized his extra effort. He was enormously proud
when he finally passed his driver’s test and received his license.
This story, written to illustrate the challenges and supports
needed by some people with dyslexia as they learn to drive, is an
optimistic one. Most learning disabled young adults struggle
through many driver education efforts. Driver educators have not
been exposed to current information on learning disabilities.
Tom and people like Tom can become safe and responsible
drivers. Tom commutes to and from his job and drives his wife
and small children on outings. In many ways, he still has to be
careful, particularly in urban driving environments. He tries to
get his wife or other passenger to navigate. He only drives when
completely alert. If he is exhausted or upset, he finds another
form of transportation. He sticks to the speed limit, unless he is
obviously blocking traffic.
Many drivers with dyslexia over compensate and become better
drivers than non-dyslexic drivers.