Virtual technology teaches teens with autism to drive

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most teenagers. But for teens on the autism spectrum, the task can seem impossible until now. See how virtual technology is teaching them the rules of the road.

It looks like Harper Kates is playing a video game. But the 16-year old, who’s on the autism spectrum, is learning how to drive.

“For most of us driving is key to achieving our goals,” Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center said.

That’s why this team of engineers at Vanderbilt University created a virtual reality simulator to help teens with autism get comfortable behind the wheel.

Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University explained, “They can learn basic driving skills in the safety of a room, and they don't have to go on the road.”

The simulator provides a virtual world of roads, highways, school zones and more; taking into account the unique needs of each driver.

Professor Sarkar continued, “Many of these individuals feel very anxious, and they also have a different gaze pattern.”

The driver is fitted with sensors to track where they’re looking and to measure their stress level.

“We monitor their heart rate;we monitor their skin sweating,” Sarkar explained.

Then the technology gives feedback in real time. Harper says the experience was fun and helpful.

Harper said, “I wouldn't say it's a perfect representation of real driving but it's pretty close.”

“We have a lot of activities going on so it will be great to have another driver in the house,” Jennifer Kates, Harper’s Mom said.

Not quite on the road yet, but giving teens with autism the boost they need to becoming safe drivers.

Right now the driving simulator is only being used for research. But the experts hope to soon make it available for parents of children with autism, and of course find out if it translates from virtual to real world driving.


REPORT: MB #4303

BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that starts in childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. It affects how a person acts and interacts with others and learns. It includes what used to be known as Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders. People with ASD can have a range of problems This could mean that the way a person interacts with another could mean they may not speak at all or they might have trouble with eye contact. The causes of ASD are not well known, but researchers think that it could be genetic.
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TEENAGE YEARS: Challenges that were prevalent in childhood become improved in the adolescent years. However, executive functioning (skills in planning, keeping track of time, maintaining self control, and asking for help) that other teens possess are often lacking in teens with ASD. Many teens also face social isolation. One rite of passage in teenage years is learning how to drive. One in three young adults with ASD earned a driver’s license, and did so on just a slightly delayed schedule (on average 9.2 months later) compared with their peers without ASD. Skills like social judgment, motor coordination, pre-planning, the ability to focus, and multi-task can be affected when one has ASD and are skills one must learn before hitting the road.
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NEW OUTLOOK: Nilanjan Sarkar, a computer and mechanical engineer at Vanderbilt University has come up with a virtual reality program where a steering wheel is used to navigate roads, stoplights, and pedestrians crossing streets on a computer screen. Sakar hopes that this will instill confidence and transfer these skills in to the real world to create independence as they transition into adults. Sakar is also hoping to create other virtual reality games to help young people with ASD navigate job interviews and make friends.
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Amy Weitlauf