Youngsters with autism can overcome phobias in the virtual world, new research in the North has shown.
Scientists at Newcastle University have found that immersive virtual reality can help youngsters with autism spectrum disorder overcome their serious fears.
In a study published today in the acadmemic journal PLOS ONE, experts reveal that after treatment in an immersive virtual reality room, eight out of nine children were able to handle the situation that scared them. Four children were found to have overcome their phobias. The positive effect of the treatment was still seen one year later.
Dr Jeremy Parr, clinical senior lecturer specialising in paediatric neurodisability at Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience said: “Phobias have a huge impact on a child with autism and their family. Parents often find themselves taking action to avoid the situation the child fears, which can impact on school and leisure activities.
“The key to this is that we have a treatment where we are providing a real-life scene in front of the child’s eyes and therefore we can help them learn how to manage their fears.
“In the North East there is a very strong autism research team and we’re one of the leading centres in the UK.”
Approximately 150,000 children are believed to have autism spectrum disorder in the UK and it affects four times more boys than girls. Many people with autism spectrum disorder have a fear or phobia and dealing with the condition is thought to cost the UK £32bn every year.
Number of children believed to have autism spectrum disorder in the UK
Each of the nine boys in the research, aged between seven and 13 and with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, was put into a virtual environment which gradually introduced them to a scene of the real-life situation they feared. This included getting on a busy bus, crossing a bridge, going shopping or talking to a shop assistant, and dealing with pigeons.
Supported by a psychologist, the children were given breathing and relaxation techniques in the safe virtual environment to help them learn to cope with the situation.
Mark Parker, of South Shields, has an 11-year-old son, who suffers from autism, and the youngster has a debilitating fear of heights.
Mark said: “His phobia was so severe that even going somewhere like the MetroCentre would be problematic, as we would have to stick to the ground floor. It was just impossible to go on the escalators. Even picking my son up would be too much for him at times, even that height scared him.
“But after just four sessions in the simulator he was able to tackle a real-life bridge that he had never been able to cross before. It has just made such a difference to our lives.”
The Newcastle University team collaborated with Third Eye Technologies in their Immersive Blue Room to create personalised situations. Accompanied by a psychologist, the child was surrounded with audio visual images representing the ‘real world’ in the 360 degree seamless screened room with no point of external reference.
In the autumn this year, it is expected that Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust will use the pioneering treatment for its young patients. It is also hoped that experts will carry out trials on adults with autism to see if it helps them too.
Dr Parr added: “Parents told us that they could see the difference in their children over the course of the four session programme – their children are now much better at coping with the situations that they once found distressing. Twelve months later, the children are still able to cope.”