Mom crafts program to help special needs teens get driver's licenses

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For one local mom, she felt the current driver's license program wasn't enough for her autistic son and decided to do something about it.

A growing number of autistic children are at the age of getting their driver's licenses. Along with an online course, the state only requires seven hours of observation and seven hours of actual driving lessons. For one local mom, she felt the current program wasn't enough for her autistic son and decided to do something about it.

Wendy Dawson's stepson, Cameron, wanted what most kids want when he turned 15 - his driver's license.

"I wanted to have my own independence. I didn't want to have anybody to chauffeur me around all the time," says now 20-year-old Cameron Dawson.

The challenge was, Cameron is autistic. So when he asked his stepmom, Wendy, for help, she knew she had to be strategic and responsible in helping open this door for him.

"I believe he needed to drive and was capable of driving, but the traditional methods of drivers education would not adequately prepare him to be a safe and effective driver," says Wendy.

Wendy, along with special educators created the program, "Drivers Ed At Your Speed" as part of her nonprofit, Social Motion, Inc., an organization that helps those with social differences.

"Drivers Ed at Your Speed is any individual with learning differences. That could be dyslexia, processing differences, autism; it could be a myriad of learning delays or syndromes," she explains.

Students go through 32 hours of drivers' education with special education tutors who work with their learning style.

"This program is different because we're actually people in a classroom working with them one on one," says Director of Education, Lauren Whidden.

Then, after they fully understand the content, the educators,parents, and student decide it's time to start driving lessons.

"We want them to be 100% ready to get into a car," Whidden adds.

The students go through 27hours of training behind the wheel with Safeway Driving, rather than the state minimum of seven.

"We set a schedule at their pace, so it fits their needs. We drive in their neighborhood, and their community, so it helps with anxiety. We also try to keep them with the same instructor for a consistency basis. If they can pass the state written exams and pass the skills test, then it's legal for them to drive," explains Nina Saint of Safeway Driving.

Cameron passed the test and stared driving five years ago and takes pride in his clean driving record.

"I have not received any types of tickets, nor have I been involved in any types of accidents. That is something that not many 20-year-olds can say," he says.

A typical Drivers Ed Online Course that includes the seven hours of observation and driving costs between $350 and $500. Drivers Ed At Your Speed includes 32 hours of in-classroom training and 27 hours of behind-the-wheel training and costs $3,500. Partial scholarships and financial assistance may be available based on need.
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