Efficiency of VR in Treating Autistic Fears and Phobias

Recent research has shown the efficacy of virtual reality (VR) in assisting those with autism in dealing with their fears and phobias. Specifically, children with autism have been observed to be nearly 45% free from these phobias six months after treatment, and a separate study showed for the first time that VR treatment holds effective in autistic adults as well.

Developed by researchers at Newcastle University working with Third Eye NeuroTech, the Blue Room is a personalized 360-degree environment that emulates the fear that hinders the autistic patient in real life. This VR simulation requires no goggles and allows the child to experience and navigate through many scenarios while working with a therapist. These professionals use iPad controls to retain full control of the simulated experience.

Published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, this research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and led by Newcastle University Professor Jeremy Parr.

“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,” explained Parr. “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.”

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Often impairing social and communication skills, autism is commonly tethered to overlooked fears or phobias that can severely hinder patients’ lives. Such phobias are estimated to affect roughly 25% of children with the condition, and those phobias present in the study include public transportation, dogs, balloons, and school classrooms.

The team of Newcastle University researchers conducted a randomized trial with 32 autistic children of ages 8-14. Half of whom received immediate treatment in the Blue Room, and the other half (control group) received treatment six months later.  A psychologist was present in the Blue Room, where participants underwent four sessions in one week simulating personalized scenarios. The children’s parents were able to watch the treatments via video as well.

“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,” said Dr. Morag Maskey, a researcher from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. “It is incredibly rewarding to see the effect it can have for some, overcoming a situation which just a week previously would have been so distressing.”

After the participants received VR treatment, they were then introduced to their fear in the real world with the support of their parents. The study found four of the first 16 participants were able to cope with their specific phobia two weeks after treatment. This effect persisted with a total of six participants (38%) displaying improvement six months after treatment. Researchers noted that one patient did report a worsening of their phobia.

In the control group, however, the study found that five of the untreated participants displayed worsened phobias in the six months. The control group participants then underwent Blue Room treatment after six months. Overall, 40% of the treated children displayed improvement at 2 weeks, and 45% at 6 months.

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In a separate publication, the Blue Room treatment was also offered to adult patients with autism. Published in Autism in Adulthood, a study led by the same research team displayed that the VR treatment was effective in autistic adults as well.

These adult participants, aged 18-57, received four 20-minute Blue Room sessions with personalized simulations. Six months after these treatments, five out of the eight adults displayed real-life improvements related to their personal phobias.

“It is rare as a business that we get the chance to help young people and their families in such a dramatic and tangible way,” said Eddie Nelson, Director of Third Eye NeuroTech. “But what we see with the Blue Room is very anxious young people and adults coming in, yet within four of these specialized sessions they come out having combatted their fears.”

Source: EurekAlert