Having a child reach driving age can be a stressful time for any parent, and this can be particularly true if your child has cerebral palsy. Even though your child may have learned to overcome any physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities they may have, driving may seem insurmountable.
However, in most cases, it’s actually possible for aspiring drivers with cerebral palsy to make use of special techniques and adaptive driving equipment to safely compensate for any impairments they may have behind the wheel.
In this article, we’ll explore cerebral palsy and how it can affect your child’s ability to drive. Then, we’ll touch on the process where — with the help of a certified driving rehabilitation specialist — your child can identify their challenge areas, refine their driving skills, and begin driving safely.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a non-progressive motor disorder usually caused by damage to the brain during pregnancy, childbirth, or early childhood development. Cerebral palsy is moderately common, affecting one out of every 323 children, and can have symptoms that range from mild to severe.
The most common location to be damaged is the cerebral cortex, which controls sensation, thought, and motor functions.
When this area is damaged, your child can experience weakness, muscle stiffness, involuntary muscle movements, and difficulty with controlling and coordinating movement. This form of CP is known as spastic CP.
The second most common form of CP is called ataxic CP, in which damage occurs in the cerebellum.
When the cerebellum is damaged, your child’s muscles can become too flexible, which can lead to weakness in the limbs, as well as some potential balance and coordination problems.
Dystonic CP (also known as dyskinetic CP), is the third major form of CP, in which the basal ganglia are damaged. The basal ganglia are in charge of communications between your brain and muscles and can lead to jerky, slow, or uncoordinated movement.
Symptoms Common to All Forms of CP
With any form of cerebral palsy, it is also possible for the person to have visual, auditory, or cognitive challenges. It’s also possible for someone to have multiple forms of CP at the same time.
Ultimately, the one common thread through cerebral palsy is that each person has unique symptoms that can affect any part of the body and mind, with wide-ranging severity.
How Can Cerebral Palsy Affect My Child’s Ability to Drive?
As we mentioned above, cerebral palsy can affect your child and their driving abilities in many ways. However, there are some general characteristics of this medical condition that can interfere with driving safely.
How CP Affects Cognitive Abilities
Around half of all people with cerebral palsy have some form of intellectual disability, with one in five experiencing moderate to severe deficits. These challenges are most commonly experienced by those with severe physical challenges and can interfere with driving safety in a number of ways.
If your child struggles with memory and recall, keeping track of the rules of the road an obstacle while they’re learning to drive.
If your child struggles with decision making and problem-solving, complicated situations like heavy traffic or freeway driving might be overwhelming.
Visual processing and object recognition challenges can also be a hurdle to overcome if your child is learning to drive, as situational awareness and reactions are absolutely fundamental to safety on the road.
How CP Affects Physical Abilities
CP can have profound physical effects on a person’s entire body, and though we don’t often think about driving as physical activity, uncoordinated movements or paralysis of limbs can be a distinct obstacle to effectively operating a motor vehicle.
Problems with arms, legs, and hands can make it challenging to operate the gas, brakes, steering wheel, or other controls, and possibly lead to unwanted or dangerous movements.
For those with ataxic CP, a lack of key muscle strength can create problems with balance and coordination, or reacting quickly to situations on the road.
Finally, nearly a third of people with cerebral palsy also suffer from epilepsy. Seizures behind the wheel are immensely dangerous, so it’s fundamental that any epileptic complications are controlled with proper medication before your child considers pursuing a driver’s license.
How CP Affects Visual Abilities
Vision is a complex neurological process involving multiple areas of the brain. Since CP can affect any area of the brain, it may cause any number of visual complications.
One common visual problem is amblyopia, which causes your eyes to look in different directions, and can lead to poor hand-eye coordination and reactions on the road.
People with CP are also more likely to be nearsighted or farsighted, which can make seeing the road difficult but is easily remedied with corrective lenses.
Finally, around 10% of people with cerebral palsy have severe vision problems to the point that they are legally blind. These complications often occur along with other severe mental and physical disabilities and tend to leave these individuals unable to drive.
How Can My Child Prepare for Driving with Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a life-long condition, and at the moment there is no known method to reverse it. However, your child can improve their general health, which will, in turn, help your child be in better shape for driving with CP.
Operating a vehicle can be both physically and mentally taxing at times, so it’s helpful to make sure that your child is getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet.
Exercise is also very beneficial to drivers with cerebral palsy and can help improve their strength, control, endurance, and range of motion.
If your child is considering learning to drive, working with a trusted doctor or physical therapist can help you come up with a regimen that will help keep them in ideal shape to drive.
Who Determines if My Child Can Drive with Cerebral Palsy?
There are no laws in Connecticut that prohibit someone with cerebral palsy from driving, but any new driver will still need to pass state driving tests, including any special tests needed for any necessary adaptive driving equipment.
What this means is that the most important person to help determine if your child can drive is your child. If they have the desire to drive, the willingness to learn, and the capacity to handle the responsibilities of the road, then it’s possible to overcome many physical limitations.
However, before simply jumping into a driving course, we recommend working with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS).
These clinical driving experts can work directly with your child to understand their unique situation and make recommendations for any training, occupational therapy, or adaptive devices they might need.
What Does Next Street Look For When Assessing Patients with Cerebral Palsy?
Whenever possible, we can meet you and your child in the comfort of your home for an initial assessment. There’s no need to study, as this is not a knowledge test, but rather an assessment of their physical, mental, and visual abilities. Just make sure to eat right and get a good night’s sleep!
These comprehensive driving evaluations start with getting to know your child’s unique situation, then working in each area needed for driving.
Visual acuity, situational awareness, strength, coordination, flexibility, memory, judgment, problem solving — all are important to safe driving, and our CDRSs can help test each of your child’s skill sets.
If this all goes well, our CDRSs can recommend your child for a behind-the-wheel driving assessment at a later date.
Possible Driving Outcomes
It may be possible that your child can capably drive a car with no adaptations. Though students with CP often take longer to learn, they will still be able to earn their license and the freedom of the road.
If possible, we recommend that your child use a car with an automatic transmission and safety features like backup sensors and collision detection braking systems, as these can help reduce their risk on the road.
Adaptive Driving Devices
If your child has primarily physical challenges, they may be able to drive with adaptive equipment, like customized footrests, hand controls, or posture and neck support.
If your child uses a wheelchair, our team can also determine any equipment to help transition themselves and their chair into the driver’s seat.
Driving with Restrictions
In some circumstances, the challenges of CP may mean that your child is safe to drive in some situations, but not in others. For example, deficits in reaction time, decision-making, and awareness might mean that they’re comfortable on local roads but might avoid driving at night or in bad weather.
If your child does have these restrictions, make sure to discuss contingency plans if heavy weather or other complications arise, so that they can stop driving and resume driving in safe conditions, or adjust as needed.
Unable to Drive
For some people with CP, any number of physical, visual, and cognitive challenges can make it unsafe to operate a vehicle.
If this is the case, we’ll work with you and your child to develop an alternative transportation plan, which might include metro transit, ride services, rides from loved ones, and other alternatives.
Take the Next Step
Here at Next Street, our goal is to help you maintain mobility, freedom, and independence while staying safe, comfortable, and confident.
If your child has cerebral palsy and you’re thinking about working with them through learning to drive, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.