A driving game can help young people with autism learn the real thing

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.”

These are common issues, said Nilanjan Sarkar, a computer and mechanical engineer at Vanderbilt University. One of his projects is developing virtual realityprograms to help people with autism spectrum disorder practice the rapid-reaction skills that driving requires. He recently published a pilot projectdescribing 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.

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