Study helps those with autism improve driving

University of Michigan researchers plan to study how well those with autism spectrum disorder detect road hazards and assist the young motorists in sharpening their driving skills.

The upcoming effort marks the second phase of a project that is funded by Ford Motor Co. and teams the Ann Arbor university with a local driving school.

During phase one of the study, researchers found that students with autism spectrum disorder detected fewer hazards than control participants during simulated drives.

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

“Those folks that underwent training improved in two-thirds of hazards in the simulated drive,” said Hodges, a clinical associate professor in the University of Michigan’s neuropsychology program.

Tate Ellwood-Mielewski, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3, is among those who plan to get back in the driver’s seat for the upcoming phase two.

“I do want to be able to drive … and get places where I want to go,” said Ellwood-Mielewski, a 23-year-old from Ann Arbor whose mother, Debbie Mielewski, was instrumental in pulling together the partners to make the study a reality.

Debbie Mielewski had been harboring a growing concern about how her son would fare in the future with no driver’s license and his parents no longer around.

So, Mielewski, a technical fellow of sustainability at Ford, approached her boss at work one day in 2018 “and just blurted out, ‘Would you support a program to help autistic spectrum kids to learn how to drive?’

“And he immediately said, ‘Yes!'”

The effort was born.

Ann Arbor Academy, a school for students with learning and social differences, hosted driving lessons. Hodges designed the simulated drives and oversaw the study. And Ford footed the bill.

The goal, in part, was to provide an opportunity for those with autism spectrum disorder to grow and improve their driving skills.

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

Hodges said she hopes the individualized driving sessions planned for the study’s second phase will bear fruit.

Either way, programs such as this one can go a long way toward helping those with autism overcome their doubts, Debbie Mielewski said.

Hodges said she hopes similar programs pop up elsewhere in Michigan and beyond.

The second phase is expected to start in a month or two, Hodges said.