Serving the Wirral community, Carol and her team of instructors help those with autism to pass their driving tests, ensuring they have the same access to learning to drive as the rest of us.
Previously a senior operations manager in banking, Carol made the move to instructing 10 years ago after the birth of her children because she wanted more flexibility to enjoy her kids’ life events. In 2016, Carol went on to form Driving School Wirral (DSW) and now has eight ADIs working alongside her.
Because of the school’s specialist work with those with autism, DSW has been officially recognised as an Autism Champion by the Autism Together charity. Here Carol discusses how being an inclusive instructor can help change people’s lives for the better.
How did you become involved in teaching people with autism?
You could say it happened by accident as a direct result of being a parent with a child with complex learning challenges. I brought my knowledge, skills and experience acquired through helping my son integrate into school and then become an independent adult.
People locally knew me because of this and trusted me to nurture their child/family member in a productive and supportive way. They knew I would understand how to communicate with their child, to get the best from them, build their confidence, and enable them to drive.
How did this knowledge effect your school when you were creating it?
I took my knowledge and integrated it into the training programme for my team. Simple, structured and clear teaching practices benefit everyone and makes learning to drive a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for both the instructor and the pupil.
Since the start of the school, we were determined to be inclusive. It became apparent that many of our pupils had very varying requirements and needs. We decided to better support these learners, further research and training was needed. So we have continuously strived to better ourselves and grow our knowledge base.
“Working with Autism Together to achieve business Champion status has given us confidence that what we are doing is good for our customers and their families.”
How should an ADI effectively demonstrate to a concerned learner/parent/guardian that they are suitably qualified to teach those with autism?
By establishing a trusting relationship. A number of DSW instructors have children with varying degrees of learning challenges; my own son has dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. We fervently believe the ability to drive, with its many advantages, should be available to all.
So we explain how all of our lessons are structured and focus on simple processes that build lesson-by-lesson at a pace that is suitable to the learner. Throughout the lesson, the instructors check the learner’s perception, understanding and emotional engagement.
We also regularly ask all learners how they feel about a task and we are trained in assessing body language, concentration and individual triggers. Above all, it is important to recognise that one size does not fit all so an ability to be flexible and adaptive is crucial.
Finally, as a parent of a child with learning challenges, I am able to draw on my own experiences and communicate these to individuals when they call to discuss the learning process. I also integrate this knowledge into the instructor training throughout the DSW team. Being recognised as Autism Champions as a business helps to validate everything we say and do as well.
What does the DVSA and the ADI community as a whole need to do to help empower those with autism to learn to drive?
This is a difficult one. While the DVSA is there to protect the public and ensure high standards of teaching, it should not offer inducements to instruct those with autism. Instead, the agency should reduce the focus on an individual’s or school’s percentage pass rates.
There is a perception that learners with autism may well adversely affect these statistics, so some instructors won’t even attempt to teach them. So a move away from this crude assessment may well be beneficial and persuade ADIs and driving schools to take advantage of an otherwise ignored area of potential custom.
“Among the ADI community, there must be an acceptance that people with autism have as much right to drive and while it maybe more difficult, it can be more rewarding. However, I fear that while an individual/business is driven by profit or the need to satisfy DVSA statistical requirements, little can be done, short of legislation, to improve the lot of the autistic community.”
– Driving school owner Carol Hetheringtron on how some ADIs and the DVSA must change to help those with autism.
How are you bringing about change in perceptions around teaching those with autism?
We are building great relationships with both the local Centre Manger, Area Enforcement Manager and the ADI examiners. We have regular meetings and drop-in sessions, and we can call on any of them to discuss issues, techniques or individual cases (without using their names) at any time.
The support of our local DVSA colleagues means we are all working together to make driving inclusive for all. We discuss and share best practices to ensure our autistic customers achieve the standard required to be a safe driver for life and pass their driving test like anyone else.
Great communication between the individual learner, the instructors, the businesses and DVSA is the secret to empowering everyone to learn to drive. We are all one team!
Finally, how does Theory Test Pro help your students?
It’s a simple tool that can be easily followed by the student and monitored by the ADI. Regular check-ins with the pupil between lessons and a review at the start of each session ensures the student is making progress each week. It also keeps them on track to be at test standard a week before they are due to sit their theory test. Should any issues arise, the test can be moved in good time.
We have our own formula and standard that work for all pupils. We encourage them to get to 100% completion of the questions and hazard clips, and achieve a 90% pass mark a week before the last date to change or cancel the theory test. They then have a week to keep going over their answers. This is a winning formula and it is exceptionally rare for anyone to fail if they get to this score level and follow our advice.
Understanding the Highway Code is vital to becoming a successful independent driver. Sign up to Theory Test Pro for free here to make sure you know all the rules of the road.