February 17, 2011—Researchers at the University of Virginia have received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study the use of virtual reality driving simulators to train and evaluate the driving skills of teens with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism, both of which are considered autism spectrum disorders.
Driving a car is an important step toward independence for adolescents and young adults. With no legal restrictions on driving with autism spectrum disorder, this study aims to assess and develop driving skills in teens with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism, or HFA, and work around the symptoms that interfere with learning to drive.
“The symptoms of Asperger’s and HFA make learning to drive particularly challenging for individuals with this disorder,” said Ron Reeve, a professor in U.Va.‘s Curry School of Education and a licensed clinical and school psychologist, who is the study’s co-investigator. “For example, they may hyper-focus on one aspect of driving and struggle with the multi-tasking required to simultaneously keep the car in the correct lane, maintain an appropriate distance from the car ahead, attend to a changing stoplight or other signal.”
Adolescents with Asperger’s and HFA have a high need for structure and predictability, which may present difficulty when unexpected disruptions break the routine – an almost daily occurrence when one is behind the wheel.
“Their difficulties with motor planning and coordination may interfere with the complexity of simultaneously steering, accelerating, judging time and distance and hazard detection,” Reeve noted.
The benefits of using the virtual reality driving simulator are multi-fold. The simulator offers safe exposure to challenging defensive driving demands. It also can play back and rehearse challenging maneuvers without the potential human element of getting frightened or frustrated with the driving performance of HFA trainees.
Daniel Cox, professor of behavioral medicine in the School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of the study, has utilized the simulator to effectively teach teens with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to drive more safely.
The latest study, to begin this summer, will involve 20 HFA teenagers, each with a learner’s permit. Half the teens will receive virtual reality driving simulator training (10 sessions of progressively demanding maneuvers), going from learning how to maintain lane position to adding speed control, then braking, use of mirrors, turn signals, etc. Once the participants have reviewed these maneuvers, they will be applied in progressively more demanding virtual traffic and road conditions.
The other half of the study group will receive whatever training they would normally receive. For example, these teens will potentially receive on-the-road training with parents, driver’s education instructors or even professional driver’s training. Both study groups will be evaluated afterward by qualified, independent driving evaluators who will not know who did and did not receive the virtual reality training.
The study expects to report its findings by the summer of 2012.
“We hope that by controlling the complexities of driving for these teens on the simulator, and by replaying mistakes to provide a safe environment for practice, we can build skills in teen drivers with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism,” Cox said. However, he noted, “Not all individuals with autism spectrum disorders will be able to develop the skills to safely drive a car, and we hope the simulator will also help us determine who is and who is not a good candidate to become an independent driver.”
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