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Helping Teens With ADHD Become Better Drivers

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11

2211- driving adhd

Courtesy of Peter Suneson

A UB researcher has developed a behavioral treatment that will help teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) become better drivers.

Dr. Gregory A. Fabiano, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology in the Graduate School of Education, has partnered with professors in the Department of Engineering to assist families as their teens learn to drive.

The Graduate School of Education was notified in May 2010 that it would receive a $2.8 million grant from the National Institute of Health to fund research on the effects of parent-teen communication on driving habits among teens with ADHD, who are considered to be the most dangerous drivers on the road.

"Teens in the study come in and get some social skills and communications training," said Fabiano about what will be a five-year investigation. "They have joint sessions with their parents where they learn how to come to agreements related to rules and restrictions."

In addition to providing behavioral and psychosocial treatment over the course of the eight-step intervention program, investigators make use of the efficient technology available at UB.

Professors Kevin Hulme and Temper Lewis (from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), who also work at the New York State Center for Industrial Design and Innovation (NYSCEDII), have provided a state-of-the-art driving simulator. The simulator has been funded both internally and by annual monies allotted by New York State and by the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR).

The driving simulator functions as a real vehicle: it sits atop a motion platform and has a steering wheel and brakes that are hooked up to a supercomputer, which processes the driver's reactions to a course provided on a visualization screen. The combination of the platform, visuals, and audio, which includes the sound of tires screeching, gives teens a way to exercise their brains and operate a vehicle without risk of injury, according to Hulme.

"It's a powerful research tool for people in a variety of departments interested in vehicle safety," Hulme said, noting the extraordinary interdisciplinary value of the machine in the UB academic community as well as Western New York's industrial base.

"What we like about the simulator is that we can provide concrete behavioral feedback to a teen," Fabiano said.

The simulator's value in the study is two-fold. As the teen practices driving in a controlled setting, parents can sit in the passenger's seat and practice their parenting. Parents of new drivers often focus on the mistakes their teens make, but in the simulator, they can practice catching their teen doing the right thing, according to Fabiano. This, in turn, can lead to a reduction in stress and a closer relationship between the parent and teen.

"The most influential components of the intervention are teaching parents to establish clear expectations and consequences related to teen driving behavior," said Meaghan Pariseau, a doctorate student in psychology.

Pariseau works as a clinician on the STEER (Supporting a Teen's Effective Entry to the Roadway) driving study. She also touts the effectiveness of technology in easing the teens' transitions to independent driving.

In addition to the simulator, Fabiano and his team set up teens' cars with a special device that beeps every time the driver's action, such as slamming on the breaks, swerving, or accelerating too rapidly – registers as risky. When hooked up to a computer, the device provides parents with a visual representation of the drive; it subsequently provides opportunities for both praise and constructive criticism.

"If somebody has ADHD, they typically have very poor insight into their own behavior, so they're not very good self-evaluators," Fabiano said.

This device, in combination with the simulator, helps license-bound teens become more aware of their driving habits. In addition, several sessions with the simulator allow teens to experience firsthand the dangerous effects of alcohol and texting on the ability to focus behind the wheel.

Although Fabiano's method of treatment is multi-faceted, it steers away from pharmacological drugs used to treat ADHD due to the limitations of medication. According to Fabiano, teens often stop taking their medicine, and even when they do take the drugs correctly, they typically use them as preparation for the school day, not when they are on the road. He considers the devices and practices employed in the study to represent a "viable alternative treatment" that can be further developed.

Fabiano hopes the intervention reduces risky behaviors in all drivers who come through the study. Stuart Linke, a graduate student in psychology, worked with Fabiano for two years on this and other studies. He said that beyond helping the teens become better drivers, the researchers hope that the study's crash course in communication helps "improve the long term outcomes for the families."

When the study concludes, Fabiano and his team will have worked with at least 200 teenagers with ADHD. Although the study currently is open only to those with the disorder, Fabiano added that the project would lead to an "interesting future avenue of research to work with typically developing teens as well."


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