UVA researchers looking at driving safety for autistic teens
By tracking the minute movements of the eye, University of Virginia researchers hope to gain new insights into how well high-functioning autistic teenagers can cope with the unexpected hazards encountered behind the wheel.
Researchers at UVA’s School of Medicine and the Curry School of Education are partnering with the University of Iowa – one of the nation’s leaders in driving simulation – to take a high-tech approach to investigating how best to help high-functioning autistic teenagers learn to drive safely. Backed by fresh funding from the Department of Defense, the upcoming study marks a new phase in UVA’s innovative research into autism driving safety.
“It takes what we’ve done and lets us build in a much more sophisticated way,” says lead researcher Daniel Cox, PhD, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the UVA School of Medicine.
In the research under way at UVA, Cox and his team are putting high-functioning autistic teens who have earned their learner’s permits into a virtual-reality driving simulator. The simulator allows the researchers to control the driving experience – gradually adding in hazards, for example – while monitoring the teens’ reactions. “The biggest concern [for drivers with autism-spectrum disorders] is not the mechanics of driving a car. It’s rapid problem solving and attention to more than one thing at a time, like side and rear traffic,” says Ron Reeve, PhD, co-investigator and professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education.
UVA is investigating these teens’ ability to respond to unexpected situations and also examining the best ways to train them to take the wheel. “One problem [associated] with ASD, or autism-spectrum disorder, is communications with other humans. They often do much better with computers than they do with people,” Cox says. “So one of the things we’re doing is making this all automated so the computer, the simulator, actually tells them when they’re driving too fast, driving too slow … as opposed to a driving instructor.”
The upcoming study with the University of Iowa, which UVA will lead, will add eye-tracking technology, ending any questions about what the drivers saw and where they were looking. That will enable the researchers to give feedback on appropriate and inappropriate visual fixation. “It’s one thing to tell people where to look,” Reeve says. “It’s another to see where their eyes are.”
The Department of Defense has signaled its support for the research by providing a grant of almost $350,000 for the upcoming study. That will allow UVA to apply advanced techniques in its bid to answer complicated questions, such as whether those with ASD might learn better from a simulator than a person. In addition, the research aims to offer insights into which people with autism-spectrum disorders will be able to succeed in obtaining their licenses. That could spare some people years of frustration, Cox says.
“Ultimately [this research] impacts all of us,” Reeve says. “The safer the driver next to us, the safer we are.”