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Teaching people with autism to drive

A simulator developed here in Virginia with the help of video game creators helps people with autism learn to drive.
A simulator developed here in Virginia with the help of video game creators helps people with autism learn to drive.

As a professor of psychiatry at UVA and director of the driving safety laboratory, Daniel Cox was concerned about people with autism learning to drive.

“Generally speaking they are relatively rigid rule-followers who pay close attention to a relatively narrow field of information, and they’re quite good at that, Cox explains.

He knew it was an important skill for any young adult.

“If you’re on the spectrum or have a child who’s on the spectrum, there’s a huge push toward autonomy and independence, and driving is one part of achieving autonomy and independence.”

But for most students with autism, driving posed a huge challenge.

“To try to control the gas pedal, brake pedal, your steering wheel, look at your review mirrors, monitor your speedometer, watch out for traffic, turns in the road. It’s an overwhelming task.”

Thirty years ago Cox also knew that a whole industry had sprung up in California – building video games, so he reached out to a company called Atari and the chief engineer for an arcade game called Hard Driving. Since that time Cox and his UVA team have worked hand-in-glove with the Silicon Valley developers to create simulators and driving scenarios.

Einar Ingvarsson is director of training and research at the Virginia Institute of Autism. He works with students like Charles Jones who are anxious to get behind the wheel.

“It’s a very easy way to get around, and it provides freedom to get around when I want to,” Jones explains.

He got his learners’ permit at the age of 16, but he felt deeply insecure.

“It’s not something I’m good with in any area, and with a new skill I was obviously lacking in that department quite a bit.”

And his mom, Jennifer Jones, wasn’t especially confident either.

“It’s a huge responsibility. It’s basically driving a weapon, honestly, because it’s just this enormous mass of steel, and I think he felt the onus of that.”

So Ingvarsson took Charles through the process of driving – step by step – on a simulator.

“Staying in a lane, driving straight and no challenges," he begins. "Then we introduce turns, then we introduce other cars on the road. Then we introduce left turns. Then we introduce traffic lights.”

Wearing 3-D goggles, using a gas pedal and brake, navigating virtual roads in cities and rural areas, Jones gradually got comfortable, learning at his own speed and repeating lessons that he found difficult.

“It was a situation where I could practice driving with effectively zero risk.”

This fall, he will enroll at James Madison University where he plans to study geology. Having his license and his own car will make it easy to get back and forth to visit his family – and he’s excited to travel the back roads of Virginia – to collect rock samples for his studies.

Professor Cox says there have been no real gains in training high school students to drive safely over the past 50 years – but the simulated program he helped to develop has improved the skills of teens with autism, and he believes a similar program could help other students to avoid accidents during the most dangerous time as a new driver – the first year behind the wheel.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief