In order to be able to live independently, it is necessary to be able to walk from place to place and cross streets successfully. Many autistic adults, however, are not able to safely navigate as a pedestrian, which makes a variety of activities, from holding a job and attending school to shopping and going to medical and other appointments difficult if not impossible.
In 2018, OAR funded a one-year research study to evaluate and aid in teaching pedestrian and street-crossing skills to autistic individuals using a virtual reality program that simulated crossing streets. The principal investigator was Cecilia Feeley, Ph.D., transportation autism project manager at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers.
Dr. Feeley and her team recruited five autistic adults from the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services to participate in the study. The team assessed participants to determine their ability to perform the skills necessary to cross the street safely. They also created an educational curriculum based on existing materials and developed a virtual reality program. The team used behavioral skills training to examine whether learned skills would generalize to a natural setting. Three modules – one with no buildings, one that was a campus or suburban setting, and a third that was a city setting – provided the virtual reality environments. The program allowed the team to simulate:
- Different seasons and times of day/night
- Various built environment conditions, including sidewalks, crosswalks, objects on the sidewalk, or in the roadway
- Areas without sidewalks or crosswalks
- Streets with a lot or a little traffic
- Vehicles traveling at various speeds
The program required participants to wear a virtual reality headset and physically walk while in a large room as if they were crossing streets, which gave them a more realistic experience of practicing road crossings. They practiced five different types of street crossings:
- Unmarked crossings
- Crossings with pavement markings only
- Crossings with pavement markings and a stop sign
- Crossings with pavement markings and a traffic signal
- Crossings with pavement markings and a traffic signal that included a walk/don’t walk signal
The research team began by having the participants cross an actual street on a Rutgers campus to gauge their skills before participating in the program and did this again after participants had gone through the program. Support staff worked with the participants and ensured their safety.
Two to four trained observers observed and scored the participants for all of the crossings, using a safe pedestrian crossing checklist. All of the crossings, including the virtual reality sessions, were recorded.
Results showed three of five participants did successfully cross streets using the virtual reality program and generalized the skills they learned in a natural setting. One of the five could not use the virtual reality headset, and another mastered the skills after the educational program and did not require virtual reality training.
While the sample size was extremely small, the study does offer preliminary evidence that virtual reality can have positive outcomes in pedestrian navigation and street crossing skills. The study also provides a model for efficiently and safely teaching pedestrian street crossing to autistic adults.
The study also noted the inability of one participant to wear the virtual reality headset, illuminating the need for alternative approaches, such as, for example, using a virtual CAVE model rather than the headsets used in this study. The CAVE model provides an immersive virtual reality environment inside a room-sized cube.
This project addressed the needs of the autistic community so that the mobility needs of this emerging adolescent and adult population can be more holistically addressed moving forward. This research can offer many individuals on the spectrum much needed support mechanisms to travel in their communities safely and independently, thus contributing positively to both their physical and behavioral health, as well as quality of life. It also allows for their transition to a new community through familiarization with the built and natural environment.