Research In Action

Research In Action

Huddle Up
Autistic Adolescents Assess Their Driving at Eagles Event
April 18, 2023

One of the main facets of my job as a Research Assistant on Dr. Allison Curry’s team at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) is to lead the day-to-day activities of a longitudinal survey study about driving and autistic teens and young adults. Over the past year and a half, I have talked to hundreds of families about their decision whether to pursue driving or to explore other ways for their teens to get around. Although anxious and uncertain, these families all share the same goal: to help their children find the best transportation decisions for their unique situation.

My CIRP team works with The Center for Autism Research (CAR) team, who partners with the Philadelphia Eagles to coordinate the Huddle Up for Autism event, where families can participate in various events and activities at Lincoln Financial Field. I was invited to volunteer, along with other CIRP research team members, to talk to families about driving and to have them take the virtual driving assessment (VDA), which measures a person’s ability to drive safely and avoid crashes.

Instead of driving being a source of stress, families giggled and smiled while their teens tried out the simulator. Even the teens who said they never wanted to drive because it made them too anxious took the assessment and laughed their way through, exclaiming: “See! This is why I don’t drive!” Some parents tried to coach their teens through the assessment while grimacing and then laughing as their teen drove on the wrong side of the road.

Younger kids also tried out the simulator as their parents watched in horror as they raced 80+ mph through the streets, sidewalks, and grass as it dawned on them they may someday have to teach them to drive. Many parents with kids of all ages would ask me about resources and I would point them to our evidence-based library of Teen Driving Safety Tools and my team's resource flyer. I also told them about the following studies we are currently working on.

Our Research on Autism and Driving

The Autism ETA Study is a longitudinal survey study focused on understanding autistic teens and their families' experiences with transportation, deciding whether to drive or not, taking public transportation, and other means of getting around. This observational study hopes to address how families make decisions about transportation, what resources they use to make this decision, how transportation impacts quality of life, and what sort of resources families wish they had during this process. Our end goal is to spread the word about resources families have found useful and to develop resources that are needed.

Our Autism ETA Naturalistic Driving Study is another observational study looking at the first year of licensure in autistic teens. An engineer on our team installs equipment into participants' cars that gathers real-world driving data such as GPS, speed, hard stops, roadway type, and more. This data will be analyzed with our collaborators at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to see if the driving behavior of autistic teens is similar to neurotypical teens.

A resource that we are currently improving is an app called Drive Focus. This app was developed by Dr. Miriam Monahan, an occupational therapist with many years of experience working with autistic individuals during the learning to drive process. Drive Focus introduces critical items that drivers encounter on the road. App users tap on these critical items such as a car’s brake lights, a stop sign, etc. so that they can practice identification and prioritization. Currently, our team is conducting interviews with parents and teens to see what they think about changes that we have made to the app.

Another resource in production funded by the Eagles Autism Foundation is a Driver Readiness Assessment. This screening measure will be designed to help families decide if their teen is ready to begin traditional behind-the-wheel training or if they should see a certified driving rehabilitation specialist or other expert for a driver readiness assessment. Currently, we are in phase one of the study where we are asking for parent, teen, and stakeholder feedback on the questions in the measure.

Though our current research and resources will not make the topic of learning to drive as fun as the virtual driving assessment, our aim is to reduce anxiety and confusion by providing better resources to families.

Learn more about Autism and Driving