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Evaluating and Enhancing Driving Skills of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
D. J. Cox1, S. M. Cox2, R. J. Johnson1, N. Broderick2, J. L. Wade2, A. E. Lambert1 and R. E. Reeve2, (1)Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, (2)Clinical and School Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Background: The ability to drive a car is paramount in the developmental process of achieving independence for adolescents and young adults. Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (difficulty with focus, limited attention flexibility, motor planning/coordination and a desire for structure and predictability) make learning to drive, and driving, particularly challenging for these individuals. However, limited research exists on driving safety among adolescents and young adults with ASD.

Objectives: Investigate the potential use of standardized Virtual Reality Training (VRT) to evaluate and train driving skills of individuals with ASD. Additionally, assess potential risk factors within this population including ASD symptomatology, anxiety, depression, and ADHD on driving performance and the procurement of a driver’s license.  

Methods: Fourteen subjects with ASD participated in an initial pilot study conducted during the summer of 2011; qualitative results helped to shape technological and study design improvements that have been implemented for the 2012 study, which began in late August. Our 2012 sample includes individuals with ASD (7 subjects to date, ages 15-25) who have secured a learner’s permit from the DMV. Subjects were assessed at pretest using measures evaluating executive function (DKEFS, BRIEF), autism symptomatology (ADOS, SRS, SCQ), depression (CES-D), anxiety (BAI), and other associated behaviors (BASC-2). Participants were then matched on gender, extent of symptomatology, and type and degree of on-road training. Matched pairs were then randomized to either the control or the VRT group; controls did not receive any VRT. VRT involves 10 sessions of progressively demanding training. Both groups were given the Department of Education 45-Hour Parent/Teen Driving Guideto guide their on-road training at home. All subjects also kept logs of their on-road training and were evaluated pre and post training on VR operational and tactical driving assessments. Additionally, subjects received an on-road assessment by an independent DMV examiner at posttest.  

Results: Qualitative results from our 2011 pilot study demonstrated a positive impact from VR training. At the conclusion of the ten sessions, parents reported increased initiation of behind-the-wheel practice, described generalization of skills learned to real-world performance, and several participants obtained their driver’s license. As recruitment and data collection are ongoing for 2012, quantitative analysis and conclusions regarding the potential effectiveness of the training program are unavailable at this time (posttests to begin October 28, 2012 and will be available well-ahead of conference). However, qualitative information supplied by the VRT instructor, participants, and their parents suggest improvement in driving skills and confidence for current VRT participants.  

Conclusions: Limited empirical research and published findings highlight the need for additional studies on general driving safety within this population. Preliminary results of this study have demonstrated the feasibility of using virtual reality driving simulation as both an assessment and training tool for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. While information gathered thus far is suggestive of positive outcomes, data collection is ongoing and more concrete results will be available by time of conference (early 2013).

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