ADHD and situational awareness

Over the years I have probably taken several hundred kids diagnosed with ADHD, learning differences and related challenges on day and overnight trips.   Through these experiences I’ve become hyper vigilant about parking lots (with streets a close second).
Why parking lots?   Many, if not most of the kids I’ve worked with lack situational awareness meaning they are not always attuned to their surroundings.   Individuals diagnosed with ADHD and related challenges have difficulty with what is called gestalt processing.  Their brains have difficulty organizing various pieces of information, putting them together as a whole and understanding the “bigger picture”.   Individual with ADHD, Asperger’s and some learning differences tend to focus on details rather than concepts or themes.  So how does this relate to parking lots? 
If someone struggles with gestalt processing, they will struggle with situational awareness.   Think about the degree to which situational awareness is required in your typical supermarket parking lot. 
To be safe in a parking lot we must consider the following simultaneously:

  • When opening the car door being aware of the car next to you as well as people who may be walking by.
  • What direction am I heading and how do I need to get to my desired destination
  • What is behind me and what is coming towards me
  • To be aware of people who may be backing out of a parking space by looking at the taillights of cars you are about to walk past
  • Adjusting our level of attentiveness based on the day of the week, time of day, etc.

Most of us never consciously think of these steps because we do them intuitively and our brains are able to organize and interpret all this information simultaneously.
Difficulty with gestalt processing or situational awareness, like all social learning challenges has almost nothing to do it intelligence, rather, it is a weakness in executive functioning. 
Not only does situational awareness keep us safe, it allows us to attend to our environment and then decide what we’re supposed to be doing based on the context of the situation at that given moment.
How can you help your child develop greater situational awareness:
1. Make them put down their electronic devices when you’re out in public.  If your attention is focused on a screen you’re not taking your environment into consideration. If your child is getting close to driving age I suggest having them not use their phone in the car, so they can learn how to pay attention to getting places by car.  Some kids have a natural skill with directions, but many do not.
2. When in a parking lot ask them what do they need to be aware of while walking through the parking lot. Help fill in the blanks they’re missing. It’s important for them to know that often drivers in a parking lot are not using situational intelligence because they’re distracted thus they need to be extra vigilant while in parking lots.
3. Help them to understand the “bigger picture” of the environment as they will likely focus on details of interest or just not pay attention if there’s nothing visually interesting to them.
Learn more about the work we do to help kids improve their situational awareness by visiting our website:

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