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Rehabilitation Engineering

Rehabilitation Engineering

Using virtual reality to help teenagers with autism learn how to drive

Astronauts and pilots use them. So do truck drivers and Formula One race car drivers. Now teenagers with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, have a virtual reality simulator as well, this one specifically designed to help them learn to drive.

None of the off the shelf driving simulators available has the capabilities built into the Vanderbilt VR Adaptive Driving Intervention Architecture, or VADIA. While it teaches adolescents with ASD the basic rules of the road, VADIA also gathers information about the unique ways they react to driving situations, allowing the system to alter the difficulty of driving scenarios so users stay engaged and get the training they need.

“A number of high functioning individuals with ASD do drive,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lab. “Studies have shown that when they are learning, they tend to make certain kinds of mistakes more often than other beginning drivers. So how you train them is very important.” He describes the project in detail in an article published in Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems.

Rehabilitation EngineeringTo use the simulator, participants don a headset that reads their brain’s electrical activity and hook up to an array of physiological sensors to record the electrical activity of the driver’s muscles and heart, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, skin temperature and respiration. The elaborate monitoring allows the researchers to determine if the driver is engaged or bored by the simulation.

The simulator portrays a city with four different districts downtown, residential, industrial and arboreal ringed by a freeway, and the software can vary the degree of difficulty, including speed, aggressiveness of drivers and weather conditions.

“One of our preliminary results is that the teenagers really like it,” Sarkar said.

“This would definitely be a good teaching aid for driving, without a doubt,” confirmed Brandon Roberson, 16-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who has been participating in the studies. He has his learner’s permit and would like to drive by himself. “Going out and doing what I want to do is something I have never been able to do because I have not been able to drive.”

A preliminary study with 20 adolescents diagnosed with ASD have confirmed Roberson’s assessment. Half of the teenagers were tested in the performance mode, and half were tested in the gaze contingency mode. After six 45-minute sessions, both groups showed improvements in performance. By the end of the test, they were completing driving trials faster with fewer errors.

“Of course, we will have to show that these improvements will carry over into real life, but we have good reasons to think it will,” Sarkar said.


The research was supported in part by National Science Foundation grant 967170 and National Institutes of Health grant R01MH091102-01A1.

Top Photo: Nilanjan Sarkar, professor of mechanical engineering, watches Brandon Roberson, a teen with Asperger’s syndrome, learn the rules of the road with the virtual reality driving simulator.