Will the dog run into the road? Is that pedestrian on the sidewalk about to step into the street?
In a virtual world, a sophisticated driving simulator at the University of Virginia, autistic teens reacted appropriately to nonhuman cues and hazards, but not to people on screen, according to researcher Daniel Cox. "They had a hard time reading interpersonal cues," he said.
Cox, in conjunction with the University of Iowa, home to the National Advanced Driving Simulator, is conducting research into teens with autism and their driving skills.
"Many individuals with high-functioning autism can learn to drive, but it takes at least four times as long to learn. One of the biggest challenges is learning to steer," he said. In his current study, he is recruiting teens with learners' permits and using eye-tracking in addition to the simulator to help them improve skills.
Cox said those diagnosed with autism tend to be "rule-followers" and rigid, which makes the constant adaptation required by driving — a flat tire, a detour, a bike in the road, a driver pulling in front — a major challenge.
Danielle Hicks, mother of 15 year-old Connor Wenzel, a student at Maury High School in Norfolk, who has a learner's permit and diagnoses of Asperger's and ADHD, agreed. "He's a real stickler for the rules. He takes a yellow light or 'No turn on red' very seriously," she said. "The biggest problem is deviating from the route. I worry if he has to make a judgment on the fly."
A driving simulator can offer a safe environment for them to practice in relatively scary situations, said Cox. He has found that the teens benefit substantially over the course of 10 sessions in a virtual world, in which they navigate complex, unexpected driving scenarios. He likens it to any other skill, such as learning to play the piano. "You have to practice, practice, practice. Anything new takes longer for them to integrate," he said.
He sees the simulator as a way to teach skills beyond those required to pass the road test given by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles for a license. With the exception of a vision test, the DMV does not use a medical diagnosis alone to bar anyone from driving.
"We don't stop someone from driving just based on a medical condition," said registered nurse and health care compliance officer Jacquelin Branche, whose office processes all medical review requests. "With autism it would be based on the severity of the condition. People with mild autism can drive, the same as someone with cerebral palsy, though they might need adaptive equipment."
Branche estimates that her office receives about 100 impaired driver complaints — written concerns submitted by law enforcement, courts, health-care providers, and family — to review each week. Cases that pass the DMV review panel of nurses require the driver to consult their doctor and report back. "We want to know 'can you operate the vehicle? How safely?'" she said. "We encourage reporting for safety reasons."
John Harrington, a pediatrician with Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, has an 18-year-old son with autism who passed the driver's education test with flying colors.
"He could definitely pass a road test," said Harrington, but he worries about his son driving alone and encountering the unexpected. In particular, he fears that he would respond inappropriately in the event of an accident or a police stop. On the positive side, he believes that driving promotes independence and a way to improve self-esteem. For now, the family has informed DMV that he should not have a full license, but Harrington anticipates changing it to allow his son to drive as long as he has an adult passenger with him.
Hicks described her son as "hyper-vigilant." However, she said, "I can't see putting him on the highway any time soon. It's going to take some training on our part, above and beyond driver's ed."
Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.
Want to participate?
What: A UVA/Iowa University driving study is seeking teens with autism who hold a learner's permit. The Charlottesville study involves 10 sessions of driving instruction using a simulator. If distance is an obstacle, sessions can be doubled up. There is no fee and no compensation involved.
Info: Call 434-243-6478; or, email ASDdrivingstudy@virginia.edu.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun