What researchers can sometimes miss in their literature reviews and their analyses for peer-reviewed publication is the raw, personal, and genuine experiences of participating in community events that directly apply to their area of study. I didn’t know what I was missing until I recently attended the 10th annual Huddle Up with Eagles Autism Challenge at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
A football game, as many of us know, can be a loud, crowded event and may not be a feasible outing for autistic adolescents and their families. With that in mind, the event was created in partnership with the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to specifically provide an autism-friendly environment, including quiet rooms and much more.
Besides bouncy houses, craft stations, autographs with Eagles players, and football drills with the Temple University Football Team, families could access activity and resource tables, including a virtual reality experience to practice interactions with law enforcement and resources related to the transition to adulthood. Proceeds from the event directly supported CAR.
Our Teen Driving Safety Research Team was invited as part of the transition to adulthood experience. We brought our portable driving simulator to contribute to this ever-growing event, which attracted over 6,000 participants this year. The simulator provides a safe environment for individuals of all ages to try driving, and it was encouraging to see many, many attendees excited to tackle this opportunity. While we were not at the event to conduct research, our team did take notes on what we saw during these simulated drives:
- Approaches to driving among the autistic adolescent population varied. Some drivers were meticulous and cautious, almost as if they were really driving, while others treated the simulation like an exciting video game.
- Parental engagement was also varied. Some parents stood by quietly supporting their children, while others were much more vocal, giving instructions and assisting with the steering wheel if needed.
What Parents Think About Driving
We also talked to parents about driving safety. While some expressed concern about their autistic adolescent driving, others saw driving as necessary for the transition to adulthood. As researchers in the field of autism and driving, we want to encourage autistic adolescents to learn to drive; but, we also know that driving is not possible, or preferable, for all. That’s why we came to the event with plenty of resources to help autistic adolescents explore their transportation options, including a helpful fact sheet for families who want to pursue driving and handouts from CAR for those that may choose not to drive.
This summer the Autism ETA (Evaluating Transportation Among Adolescents) Research Team, comprised of researchers from CIRP and CAR, will begin recruitment of autistic adolescents of driving age and their parents for interviews and a survey about the facilitators and barriers to pursuing driving. These activities are part of a 5-year study led by Allison E. Curry, PhD, MPH and funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We want to better understand how autistic adolescents and their families make mobility decisions and what types of support they need. We also want to develop tools for clinicians to share with these families.
As a researcher who spends the majority of her time behind the scenes for research projects, it was extremely rewarding to engage with and give back to the community that we directly aim to serve. I can’t wait to attend next year’s Huddle Up event!
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