Children suffering from autism could have their phobias treated using virtual reality enabling them to face their fears in a safe environment.
During an experiment run by Newcastle University, eight out of nine children with autism learned to handle the situation that caused them fear with four of them eventually totally overcoming their phobia.
The experiment shows that virtual reality training could improve the quality of life of autism sufferers.
"Phobias have a huge impact on a child with autism and on the whole family,” said Jeremy Parr, Clinical Senior Lecturer specialising in Paediatric Neurodisability at Newcastle University's Institute of Neuroscience.
"Parents often find themselves taking action to avoid the situation the child fears, which can impact on school and leisure activities.
Using the novel approach, the psychologists took the children into a specially built room walled with screens on which situations related to the patient’s fears were projected
After using relaxation techniques, and sitting alongside a psychologist, the child can be gradually introduced to the scenario.
"Currently the main treatment is cognitive behaviour therapy but that often doesn't work for a child with autism as it relies on imagination,” Parr said.
"People with autism can find imagination difficult so by providing the scene in front of the child's eyes, we help them learn how to manage their fears."
The blue room used in the experiment, fitted with screens all around, creates a seamless world, without the need for the child to wear a headset or goggles. A tablet is used to move around the scene, allowing them to explore the situation they have previously found traumatic.
"One boy was so fearful shopping that he would walk behind his parents with his hood up, refusing to even speak to people he knew,” said researcher Morag Maskey.
"We created a petrol station kiosk scene in the Blue Room where he picked up a newspaper. With the help of the psychologist who was in the room with him, he learnt to control his anxiety with breathing and stretching exercises.”
With further training at home, the child achieved lasting improvement.
"A chance to explore stressful scenarios in a safe, virtual environment could help those whose lives are dominated by anxiety to better manage their fears, improving their quality of life," said Carol Povey, Director of The National Autistic Society's Centre for Autism.
The results of the study where published in journal Plos One.