VR treating phobias in children with autism
An immersive virtual reality therapy has shown signs of lasting success in treating phobias in children with autism.In a very small trial, around 45 percent of children were free from their phobias six months after treatment.A separate study also suggested that the treatment worked for some autistic adults.
The Blue Room, developed by scientists at Newcastle University and technology firm Third Eye NeuroTech, allows the creation of a personalised 360-degree environment involving the fear which may debilitate the person with autism in real life.Within this virtual environment, which doesn’t require special glasses, the person can navigate through various scenarios with the help of a psychologist, using iPad controls, and learn how to deal with them.
Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the research was published in two papers in the ‘Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders’ and ‘Autism in Adulthood’.Professor Jeremy Parr, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, who led the studies, said: “For many children and their families, anxiety can rule their lives as they try to avoid the situations which can trigger their child’s phobia.To be able to offer an NHS treatment that works, and see the children do so well, offers hope to families who have very few treatment options for anxiety available to them.”
Autism affects how people communicate and interact with others. It is thought that around 25 per cent of children with autism have fears or phobias, although this can be an overlooked aspect of the condition.
The trial involved 32 children with autism, aged between eight and 14. Half received treatment in the Blue Room straightaway and half received treatment six months later. Their phobias included dogs, wasps and bees, lifts, the dark, flying, dolls, balloons, public transport, school and walking into rooms.
The children underwent four sessions in a week in the Blue Room. Parents were able to watch the treatment via video link.Dr Morag Maskey, another researcher from the Institute of Neuroscience, explained: “People with autism can find imagining a scene difficult, which is why the Blue Room is so well-received.We are providing the feared situation in a controlled way through virtual reality and we are sitting alongside them to help them learn how to manage their fears.It is incredibly rewarding to see the effect it can have, overcoming a situation which just a week previously would have been so distressing.”
After receiving the treatment, and with the support of their parents, the children were then introduced to the scenario in the real world.Two weeks later, four of the first 16 children to receive treatment were able to cope with their phobia. Six showed improvement after six months, although one reported a worsening of their phobia. In the control group who had not yet received treatment, five children had become worse in the six months.
When all the children had been treated, 40 per cent of them showed improvement after two weeks, and 45 per cent after six months.The treatment also seemed to work in five out of eight autistic adults, who similarly received four 20-minute sessions in the Blue Room. Six months later, those five were still experiencing improvements in their phobia.
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