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Nava R. Silton, Ph.D

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


A collection of stories, experiences and uplifting tales regarding the world of disabilities and the individuals who have them.

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

Nava Silton

One in every 68 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. This is a life-long diagnosis and thus plenty of those children are teenagers. Surveys report that about 30% of adolescents with ASD either drive or want to drive. This is what inspired Vanderbilt psychologist Amy Weitlauf to collaborate with a team of Vanderbilt engineers to develop a special adaptive virtual reality driving environment for individuals with ASD. Although there are already off-the-shelf driving stimulators, none have the capabilities of the Vanderbilt VR Adaptive Driving Intervention Architecture (VADIA), which gathers information about the unique ways that students drive. VADIA use this information to structure future driving scenarios to fit the level and needs specific to each student. The stimulator looks like a classic driving arcade game with a seat, steering wheel, pedal and screen. The stimulator portrays a city with four different areas, downtown, residential, industrial and arboreal. The program focuses on teaching turning, merging, speeding and laws. Not only does the software have multiple ways to increase or decrease the difficulty of multiple factors, but it also provides immediate feedback when the student makes mistakes. The stimulator is still in the research phase, but it already appears to be a promising way to give teens with ASD the ability to complete the rite of passage that typically developing teenagers take for granted-getting one’s license.

Read more about the stimulator and the research being done here.