Virtual reality being used to help autistic children conquer their fears

Autism is a complex condition that often necessitates several different types of support that can help make the individual’s life easier and less stressful to navigate.

Research indicates that around 25 per cent of autistic children are affected by phobias that can have an at-times debilitating effect on how the child copes in the social world.

These can include but are not limited to fear of public transport, classrooms, animals or balloons. One of the ways of combating the effects of these phobias is through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), however, an aspect of this therapy involves using imagination and visualisation.

This poses a difficulty for use within autistic populations as these are activities autistic people tend to struggle with. To tackle this problem, a recent study examined the effect of using virtual reality therapy to treat phobias in autistic children.

The research was conducted in the Blue Room, an immersive VR experience which was developed by specialists at Newcastle University working alongside innovative technology firm Third Eye NeuroTech.

The Blue Room allows children to comfortably investigate different scenarios that might trigger their anxiety, working with a therapist using iPad controls so that they remain in full control of the situation.

Professor Jeremy Parr, who led the study 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 fears or 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.”

Overall, 40 per cent of the children treated the country showed improvement after two weeks of treatment and 45 per cent at six months. This improvement is comparable with other treatments and the team aim to investigate why some children don’t respond as well as others.