Safe Teen Drivers: New Study Helps Everyone Get Behind the Wheel

By: Bailey Disselkoen Email
By: Bailey Disselkoen Email

February 14, 2011

The Defense Department recently awarded the University of Virginia with a $100,000 exploratory grant to work on determining the best way to teach teens with high-level autism and Asperger's syndrome how to drive.

One in 100 Americans have been diagnosed with the spectrum disorder. Autism makes it difficult to pick up on social cues, multi-task, and deal with chance and unpredictability, all of which are factors when driving.

Organizers of the study plan to teach half of the participants how to drive using classroom instruction and "on road" experience, and the other half how to driving using a simulated driving experience.

"The advantage of the driving simulator, is that you can repeat and rehearse the same situation over and over again," explained Daniel Cox, a Professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Psychology.

That way, the teen can practice the same maneuver over and over again, until they are able to master the skill. The simulator will also introduce teens to one variable at a time.

"The first variable we focus on is driving on the road, then we can add another variable such as stop signs, then green lights," said Ron Reeve, of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

The step-by-step introduction will benefit teen's dealing with autism, who tend to hyper-focus on only one element of driving at a time.

"With regard to driving, those with this disorder tend to hyper-focus so they do a really good job of paying attention to one thing or two things. But, driving is a very complex event that involves multi-tasking and what we know from our work with children and adults on the spectrum is that they have difficulty multitasking," explained Reeve.

The simulator will allow teens to practice multi-tasking in a safe environment.

"It's very difficult to do one thing, and then to have to comprehend doing something else at the same time, such as trying to maintain my speed when shifting lanes," said Riley Cole, of Earlysville.

Riley was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. The disorder makes learning to drive difficult for him.

"A lot of the activities that go on with people in that age range, an awful lot involves being able to get some place, meet your friends, do things, and come home. And that's just not part of his life now, it will be once he is driving," said Louise Cole, Riley's mother.

Riley will not be participating in the study, but he will be using the simulator to practice driving. A skill he hopes to master soon.

"Being a teen, I want more independence. I am going off to college soon and being in the real world, when I have a job and everything, it would be far more useful to have a car to drive from place to place rather than having to walk everywhere," said Cole.

Organizers of the study say if they can prove the simulator enhances the learning-to-drive experience, then there are simulators all over the country that could potentially be used for this purpose.

"I think that using the simulator has the potential to be used all over the country to really improve the driving performance of people with this disorder," said Reeve.

Potentially changing the lives of many teens, not just Riley's.

"I want more than anything for him to live a life that is typical, and I see driving as a part of that," said Louise Cole.

If you or anyone you know would like to be involved in the study, contact Stephany Cox, at (434)-243-3131, or e-mail curry_asd_research@virginia.edu


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