Driving lesson

A University of Michigan study to help people with autism improve their driving

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — University of Michigan researchers are studying how well people with autism spectrum disorders can detect road hazards and plan to help young motorists hone their driving skills.

The upcoming effort will be the second phase of a Ford Motor Co.-funded project that partners Ann Arbor University with a local driving school.

During the first phase of the study, researchers found that students with autism spectrum disorders detected fewer hazards than control participants during simulated driving.

But, according to lead researcher Elise Hodges, some extra work behind the wheel did the trick.

“These people who were trained improved two-thirds of the risk during simulated driving,” said Hodges, clinical associate professor in the University of Michigan Neuropsychology Program.

Tate Ellwood-Mielewski, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3, is among those considering returning to the driver’s seat for phase two of the study.

“I want to be able to drive…and go where I want to go,” said Ellwood-Mielewski, 23, of Ann Arbor, whose mother, Debbie Mielewski, was instrumental in bringing the partners together. carry out the study.

Mielewski grew increasingly worried about how her son would do in the future without a driver’s license and his parents were gone.

Thus, Mielewski, a technical researcher in sustainable development at Ford, approached her boss in 2018 “and just blurted out: “Would you like to support a program to help children on the autism spectrum learn to drive?

“And he immediately said, ‘Yes! “”

Ann Arbor Academy, a school for students with learning and social differences, held driving lessons. Hodges designed the simulated workouts and supervised the study. Ford paid the bill.

The goal, in part, was to give people with autism spectrum disorders the opportunity to improve their driving skills.

“A lot of them…would love to drive, but wanting to drive and being able to drive are two different things,” Hodges said.

Indeed, the first phase of the study found that in addition to detecting hazards, students with autism tended to slow down and “stop dead” at stop signs.

Hodges said she hopes the individualized driving sessions planned for phase two will bear fruit.

Either way, programs like this can go a long way in helping people with autism overcome their doubts, said Debbie Mielewski.

“If we can just set them free to think they can do anything, I really think they can,” she said. “They need support. We should support them.

Hodges said she hopes similar programs will appear elsewhere.

“In the best-case scenario, I hope parents will learn that their teenagers or young adults with ASD may in fact be able to drive successfully,” she said. “And there may be tools that maybe they weren’t aware of.”

The second phase should begin in a month or two, Hodges said.