University of Virginia is Using Virtual Reality to Help People with Autism Learn to Drive

About 1 in 3 American teens with autism obtains a driver’s license. That’s substantially lower than the average rate for all teens in the country, which sits at more than 60%. People on the spectrum can have trouble learning how to drive, with delayed decision-making and issues with multi-tasking sometimes making things difficult. A program at the University of Virginia is working to help those with autism overcome the challenge of driving.

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Dr. Daniel J. Cox, a researcher at UVA’s Department of Psychiatry, has been working to tailor driver’s education to those on the spectrum. For some time, he’s used a room-sized driving simulator to make the learning process more comfortable. Now, he’s making things even more accessible with a less expensive “mixed reality” headset that would-be drivers could even take home.

Dr. Cox says, “Our simulator is too big, too costly and too sophisticated and complicated to be exported extensively. So now we’ve come up with what they call a ‘mixed-reality, head-mounted display simulator.’ It takes the same road course that we’ve developed … and displays that. But what we’ve done is mount two cameras on the goggles that film the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. It mixes reality with the virtual world, so you can see your hands and feet in this immersive world. It’s like using our simulator, without the need for the simulator.”

Dr. Cox is now testing the headsets to see how much benefit they can provide. His team has invited new drivers, both those on the spectrum and those who are not, to use the devices in a clinical trial through the end of 2021. The hope is to understand if the new approach is helpful and how it compares to the room-sized simulator. The trial, funded by a grant from UVA’s Supporting Transformative Autism Research program, will also be looking at the difference in performance between neurotypical participants and those with autism, on both forms of simulation.

The hope is that the headsets will ultimately provide a way for those on the spectrum to feel more comfortable getting out on the road, and to do so safely.

Dr. Cox told WVIR in Charlottesville, “We are using it with individuals on the spectrum to target two things. One: to improve their driving skills. And two: to reduce their driving concerns, anxieties, and apprehensions.”

If it proves successful, it will also be used for other new drivers who need to get a little more comfortable before getting behind the wheel.

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