Driving is an important step toward independence for young adults. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) make learning to drive particularly challenging for individuals with this disorder. For example, they may hyper-focus on one aspect of driving and struggle with the multitasking required of most basic driving skills; their need for structure and predictability may present difficulty when unexpected disruptions break the routine; and their difficulties with motor planning/coordination may interfere with the complexity of simultaneously steering, judging time and distance, etc.
Virtual Reality (VR) driving simulators offer advantages for training and evaluating driving skills. Simulators offer safe exposure to challenging defensive driving demands; provide objective comparison to normative data; allow users to rehearse challenging maneuvers; and do not become frightened or frustrated with performance of ASD trainees.
This study will investigate the use of VR to train and evaluate driving skills of individuals with ASD. Twenty ASD teenagers with a learner's permit will participate. Half will receive VR training (10 sessions of progressively demanding maneuvers), and the other half will receive whatever training they would otherwise receive. Both groups will be evaluated afterwards by qualified, independent driving evaluators who will not know which participants did and did not receive VR training.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the efficacy of VR training to enhance the complex cognitive-motor-perceptual skills needed for driving involving individuals with ASD. This unique effort could immediately impact the likelihood of independence/self-sufficiency for some of the rapidly increasing population of individuals with ASD.