Virtual reality helps teenagers with autism learn how to drive


Astronauts and pilots use them. So do truck drivers and Formula One race-car drivers. Now there is a virtual reality simulator specifically designed to help teenagers with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, learn how to drive.
Image: Adolescent boy uses a driving simulator; Copyright: Michael Todd, Vanderbilt University

A 16-year-old with Asperger syndrome using the driving simulator; ©Michael Todd, Vanderbilt University

"In the past 15 years, there has been such an emphasis, such an appropriate emphasis, on early identification and early treatment of children with ASD," said Amy Weitlauf, a psychologist who specializes in autism. "Well, now many of these children are adolescents and adults, so we have started to work on providing them with the support they need to become independent adults. And one of those key life skills for independence is, for many people, the ability to drive."

Surveys indicate that about 30 percent of adolescents with ASD either drive or want to drive. That is why Weitlauf, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and part of the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center, is collaborating with a team of Vanderbilt engineers to develop a special adaptive virtual-reality driving environment for individuals with ASD. Although there is no single accepted treatment for ASD, there is growing agreement that individualized behavioral and educational interventions can have a positive impact on the lives of these individuals and their families, she explained.

There are a number of off-the-shelf driving simulators available, but none have the capabilities built into the Vanderbilt VR Adaptive Driving Intervention Architecture (VADIA). Not only is it specifically designed to teach adolescents with ASD the basic rules of the road, but VADIA also gathers information about the unique ways that they react to driving situations. This will allow the system to alter driving scenarios with varying degrees of difficulty to provide users with the training they need while keeping them engaged in the process. Ultimately, it may also help screen individuals whose deficits are too severe to drive safely.

"A number of 'high functioning' individuals with ASD do drive and studies have shown that when they are learning they tend to make certain kinds of mistakes more often than other beginning drivers. So how you train them is very important," said Nilanjan Sarkar, the professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lab. He heads up the project, which is described in detail in an article published online in the Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems.

The research setup consists of an automotive-style bucket seat, steering wheel, brake and gas pedals in front of a large, flat screen display on a height-adjustable table. The black box sitting directly below the screen is an eye-tracker that keeps track of where the driver is looking.

Participants don a headset containing electrodes that read the electrical activity of their brain (EEG) and they are hooked up to an array of physiological sensors that record the electrical activity of the driver's muscles (EMG), electrical activity of the heart (ECG), galvanic skin response, blood pressure, skin temperature and respiration. The elaborate monitoring allows the researchers to determine if the driver is engaged or bored by the simulation.

The simulator portrays a city with four different districts - downtown, residential, industrial and arboreal - that is ringed by a freeway. It is programmed with four basic types of driving scenarios: turning, merging, speed and laws. Speed scenarios involve those that require the driver to change their speed, such as entering or leaving school zones, street maintenance areas and changes in posted speed limit. Laws scenarios involve obeying traffic signs, such as stop and yield.

"One of our preliminary results is that the teenagers really like it," said Sarkar.

"This would definitely be a good teaching aide for driving, without a doubt," confirmed 16-year old Brandon Roberson, an adolescent with Asperger syndrome who has been participating in the studies. He has his learner's permit and would like to drive by himself. "Going out and doing what I want to do is something I have never been able to do because I have not been able to drive."; Source: Vanderbilt University

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