YOUR HEALTH: Autism won’t stop this future driver

MEMPHIS, Tennessee – Parents of autistic children know their sons and daughters can lead full lives.   The key is to teach them basic skills in ways they can use them.

Now, that could include driving.

It looks like Harper Kates is playing a video game.

"Right turn ahead, turn right," is heard from a new machine developed at Vanderbilt University.

But it's not a game: the 16 year old, who's on the autism spectrum (ASD, is learning how to drive.

"For most of us driving is key to being able to achieving our goals," explained Vanderbilt University pediatrics professor Amy Weitlauf.

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.

"They can learn basic driving skills in the safety of a room, and they don't have to go on the road," said Vanderbilt Mechanical Engineering professor Nilanjan Sarkar.

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

"Many of these individuals feel very anxious, and they also have a different gaze pattern," said Dr. Sarkar.

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," explained Dr. Sarkar.

Then the technology gives feedback in real time.

Harper says the experience was fun and helpful.

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

And Harper's mother couldn't be happier.

"We have a lot of activities going on so it will be nice to have another driver in the house," said Jennifer Kates.

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

Right now the driving simulator is only being used for research but the team at Vanderbilt say they hope to soon make it available for parents of children with autism and to find out if it translates from virtual to real world driving.

Dr. Sakar also hopes to create other virtual reality games to help young people with ASD navigate job interviews and make friends.

AUTISTIC DRIVERS: 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.
(Sources: https://iancommunity.org/cs/simons_simplex_community/autism_in_teens
https://www.carautismroadmap.org/driving-and-asd-determining-readiness/ )

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.