There isn’t much in the way of public transportation in Sam McCarty’s Nashville-area neighborhood, so like most teenagers, he wants to drive when he turns 16 within the next year.
But Sam has mild autism, and for years his mom, Bonnie McCarty, worried that the unpredictability of traffic and the potential for distraction would make driving dangerous, if not impossible for her son. Sam sometimes struggles to keep his focus, she said, and might mess up a sequence of events required to drive safely.
“I could see billboards being a huge problem,” she said. “Maybe also stoplights.”
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These are common issues, said Nilanjan Sarkar, a computer and mechanical engineer at Vanderbilt University. One of his projects is developing virtual reality programs to help people with autism spectrum disorder practice the rapid-reaction skills that driving requires. He recently published a pilot project describing the driving simulation in the journal Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems.
Sam participated in the research, using a steering wheel to navigate roads, stoplights, and pedestrians crossing streets on a computer screen.
Sarkar is also developing VR to help young people on the autism spectrum navigate job interviews and make friends. Through this, Sarkar is hoping to give teens like Sam the skills — and confidence — to live independently as adults.
“We all know social communication problems are a big issue, but there are also issues of daily living,” said Sarkar of people on the autism spectrum. “We wanted to design a virtual reality simulator … to identify why they make mistakes and how to correct the mistakes.”
Autism diagnoses are on the rise, in part because of more frequent screening. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said as of 2012, 1 in 68 people has a diagnosis of ASD, up from 1 in 150 in 2000. This means an increased demand for specialized educational services as children with autism become adults. Sarkar said one way of getting that targeted education to the students who need it could be through VR on computers.
But virtual reality has its caveats. Sarkar’s team isn’t yet using VR headgear in the driving simulation, so peripheral vision doesn’t get the workout it would on the road. And computer screens are no match for the real-life anxieties that activities like driving and social interaction can bring for people on the autism spectrum, said Janet Murphy, a case manager at the Boston Higashi School, a school with a boarding program for people ages 6 to 22 on the autism spectrum.
“Virtual reality may be a good place to start, but going out in the community is where these kids really learn because the environment cannot totally be controlled for them,” Murphy said.
Sarkar agrees, emphasizing that his lab’s games are only part of the equation, but potentially an important start, especially in places where families may not have access to special facilities or experts.
“Some people drive here from Alabama and Kentucky just to see the clinician,” he said.
In ASD education, intensive early learning is critical, said Peter Gerhardt, executive director of the EPIC School for Autism in New Jersey. His instructors can spend hours with students in the real world working on skills like grocery shopping or walking home. For a young child with severe learning challenges, Gerhardt said it might take 1,000 attempts to learn the colors in a basic crayon box. For a task like buying food, he said, that number becomes much more complicated.
“If he goes once a week to buy lunch at Burger King, it will take us 20 years to give him a thousand instructional opportunities,” he said, giving an example of a hypothetical student.
Bringing VR into the school could supplement some of this time in the community, allowing students to practice anything from shopping to crossing the street more efficiently, he said. It could be a way to practice daily skills, like buying food, without the burden of transportation or spending real money — and with the opportunity for as much repetition as necessary.
“I think it’s probably where the field needs to go, quite honestly,” Gerhard said. “We can teach some of these more complex skills in an environment that actually allows us to do it over and over and over again, but still change things.”
And for McCarty, the opportunity for her son to start practicing something as risky as driving in a safe environment has convinced her he’s ready for a step she might not have considered before. This year he’ll be taking drivers education at school, finally getting the chance to see how well his new virtual skills transfer to the real world.