Learning to Drive with Autism


A member of a research team led by Dan Cox at UVA Health System demonstrates the driving simulator. Cox is recruiting teens with autism for 10 sessions of instruction in the simulator. (Jackson Smith/UVA Health System photo(Jackson Smith, UVA Health System / March 7, 2013)

The University of Virginia Health System researchers have developed a virtual world that simulates the experience of driving. According to their study, autistic teens were able to react appropriately to non-human cues and hazards, but did not react very well to the people on the screen. Researcher Daniel Cox reports that, “they had a hard time reading interpersonal cues.” Daniel Cox along with the University of Iowa, home of the National Advanced Driving Simulator is conducting this research into teens with autism and their driving skills.

“Many individuals with high-functioning autism can learn to drive, but it takes at least four times as long to learn. One of the biggest challenged is learning to steer,” Cox. Their current study is recruiting teens with learner’s permits and using the addition of an eye tracker to help them improve their skills. He says that autistic people tend to be “rule-followers” which makes the constant adaptation needed to drive, such as taking care of a flat tire, avoiding accidents, filling gas, and dealing with reckless drivers, something of a real challenge for these teens.

One mother of 15 year old Conner Wenzel, who has his learner’s permit and is diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD agrees with Cox on this. She says about her son’s driving, “He’s a real stickler for the rules. He takes a yellow light or ‘no turn on red’ very seriously. The biggest problem is deviating from the route. I worry if he has to make a judgment on the fly.” She describes him as “hyper-vigilant” and acknowledges, “It’s going to take some training on our part, above and beyond driver’s ed.”

John Harrington, a pediatrician, has an 18 year old autistic son who passed his driver’s ed test with flying colors however he worries about letting him drive alone. In the event of an accident or a police stop, Harrington fears that his son won’t know how to respond. But he does believe that driving is an important part of gaining self-esteem and independence. For now, he has informed that DMV that his son should not have his full license, but he is considering letting his son drive as long as there is an adult next to him.

The driving simulator offers a safe environment for practicing these very important driving skills that can only really be taught through experience. Cox has found that the teens he worked with benefited greatly over the course of 10 sessions with the simulator when they had to navigate complex driving scenarios and will continue accepting autistic teens as part of this study.

Our upcoming International Autism Conference will have a whole day dedicated to Technology and the Road opportunity, Click here for more info!