Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most teenagers. But for teens on the autism spectrum, the task can seem impossible. See how virtual technology is teaching them the rules of the road.
It looks like Harper Kates is playing a video game. But the 16-year old, who's on the autism spectrum, is learning how to drive.
"For most of us driving is key to achieving our goals," Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center said.
That's why this team of engineers at Vanderbilt University created a virtual reality simulator to help teens with autism get comfortable behind the wheel.
Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University explained, "They can learn basic driving skills in the safety of a room, and they don't have to go on the road."
The simulator provides a virtual world of roads, highways, school zones and more; taking into account the unique needs of each driver.
Professor Sarkar continued, "Many of these individuals feel very anxious, and they also have a different gaze pattern."
The driver is fitted with sensors to track where they're looking and to measure their stress level.
"We monitor their heart rate; we monitor their skin sweating," Sarkar explained.
Then the technology gives feedback in real time. Harper says the experience was fun and helpful.
Harper said, "I wouldn't say it's a perfect representation of real driving but it's pretty close."
"We have a lot of activities going on so it will be great to have another driver in the house," Jennifer Kates, Harper's Mom said.
Not quite on the road yet, but giving teens with autism the boost they need to becoming safe drivers.
Right now the driving simulator is only being used for research. But the experts hope to soon make it available for parents of children with autism, and of course find out if it translates from virtual to real world driving.