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New program gives people with autism the skills, confidence to drive

Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami is using virtual reality immersion to help patients with autism prepare to drive on their own.
New program gives people with autism the skills, confidence to drive
Posted at 12:56 PM, Apr 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-27 14:56:57-04

Kids these days are no strangers to technology. It's been a part of their lives since they were born. So why not use that technology as an advantage in learning? 

That's exactly what staff at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami are doing. 

Dr. Christina Potter is the hospital's supervisor of IT digital technologies. She and her team are using research grants to study the potential benefits of virtual reality for patients with autism spectrum disorder.

"There are a lot of different things that virtual reality and immersive technologies can do, and we're just starting to hit the tip of the iceberg with what we can really see happening there within that clinical space," Potter said. "We've been measuring patient anxiety, their perceived levels of pain, we've also been measuring parent anxiety as well. Across the board, we've seen between a 30% and 60% reduction in our patients just in their levels of anxiety and in their perceived levels of pain."

Their newest program is DRIVE, which stands for Driving Improvements Through Virtual Reality Experience. Natalia Guerra is currently a student in the program.

"I'm 21 right now. I'm currently in college," Guerra told Scripps News.

She's watched her friends and family get their licenses, and now she's ready for her turn.

"I could drive to stores or places I kind of want to go to and I could go to people's houses without having to depend on my parents or someone else to drive me," she said. "Hopefully, I can pull through."

They start inside the classroom, with glasses on, hands on the wheel and a foot pressing the pedal. Students, like Guerra, become immersed in real driving scenarios.

"It's really good to practice without having to worry about getting injured or anything," she said. "I have difficulties when it comes to the strength of the pedal and the speed ... This is a great opportunity to test it out."

SEE MORE: Long-term study may help explain what causes autism

Students don't slide into the driver's seat of a moving vehicle until the VR experience has fully prepared them. Once they are ready, a partnership with a local driving school allows them to get behind the wheel of a two-brake car in a safely controlled physical setting.

"It's like an intermittent space where they can come, they can practice, they can make errors, they can receive that immediate feedback after every scenario," said Blanca Diaz, the lead instructor of the DRIVE program.

Natalia's mother, Maggie, tells Scripps News she didn't know if she'd ever see the opportunity for her daughter to get her license.

"In my part, I'm eternally grateful and we need more of these. I'm eternally grateful because that's the key to her independence," Maggie said.

"If you think about it, in our particular society, driving is kind of a big deal and it's about independence, it's about self-confidence, it's about helping them further their educations, further their career goals and, really, further their progression as adults," said Dr. David Seo, the senior vice president for digital and information systems at Nicklaus Children's Hospital.

Seo says there are misconceptions about autism and the abilities of those who have it.

"What people perhaps don't realize, is that kids on the spectrum — it's not that they cannot learn. They process information differently. It takes a longer time for them to learn. They often learn in a very stair-step method," he said.

SEE MORE: From 'The Proud Family' to 'The Good Doctor:' how TV discusses autism

Potter says it's the anxiety and fear that oftentimes gets in the way of these students getting their driver's license.

"They otherwise have the capacity, the learning ability, the motor functionality to drive and to drive very well, but they have such heightened levels of anxiety that they don't even want to try," she said. 

Diaz has seen those anxious responses drastically change over time with her students.

"We've noticed just their self-confidence, their motivation, they look forward to their future," Diaz said.

Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that compared to non-autistic drivers, drivers with autism were estimated to have fewer crashes, tickets and suspended licenses.

However, currently only one-third of autistic individuals without intellectual disability obtain a drivers license by age 21. Those at Nicklaus Children's want those numbers to increase and see this program in more cities.

"Everything we've done, from the curriculum development to the process of applying the technologies and training and how we run the program — all of it is being done in a way that we feel could be scaled and could be spread," Seo said.

Their goal is to change the stigma and give those with autism the confidence to get out on the road.


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