Virtual reality therapy being used to help autistic children conquer their fears
Image credit: pa
Children with autism have been undergoing virtual reality sessions to help them overcome some of the fears and phobias that the condition can exacerbate.
The Blue Room, developed by specialists at Newcastle University working alongside tech firm Third Eye NeuroTech, allows the team to create a personalised 360-degree environment involving the fear which may debilitate the person with autism in real life.
In the test study it was found that 45 per cent of the children were freed from their phobias six months after treatment.
One 11-year-old boy who was terrified of dogs and would become hysterical if he saw one has made such a recovery that his family now has a much-loved pet terrier.
Within this virtual environment, which requires no goggles, the child can comfortably investigate and navigate through various scenarios working with a therapist using iPad controls but remain in full control of the situation.
A separate study has also shown for the first time that the treatment works for some autistic adults.
“For many children and their families, anxiety can rule their lives as they try to avoid the situations which can trigger their child’s fears or phobia,” said Professor Jeremy Parr, who led the study.
“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.”
The Blue Room is based in County Durham and created with the university by technology specialists Third Eye NeuroTech.
The randomised controlled trial involved 32 children with autism aged 8 to 14 years.
Half received treatment in the Blue Room straight away and half acted as a control group, receiving delayed treatment six months later.
After receiving the treatment and with the support of their parents, the children were then introduced to the scenario they feared in the real world.
Two weeks after treatment, the research shows that four of the first 16 (25 per cent) had responded to treatment and were able to cope with a specific phobia.
This effect remained, with a total of six showing improvement after six months (38 per cent), however, one reported a worsening of their phobia.
Meanwhile, in the control group, five untreated participants had become worse in the six months.
The control group went on to be treated in the Blue Room after this time. Results showed that overall 40 per cent of children treated showed improvement at two weeks, and 45 per cent at six months.
It is thought phobias affect around 25 per cent of children with autism.
The treatment also helped a 26-year-old to graduate from university after she overcame a crippling fear of walking through doors or down a long corridor.
The university said NHS treatment is available to UK families through the Complex Neurodevelopmental Disorders Service at Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.
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