A study at Newcastle University has found that immersive virtual reality programs can be used as therapy tools to treat phobias in children with autism. Having used virtual environments to try and conquer their phobias, nearly 45% of children in the study were free from these phobias six months after the study ended, suggesting this therapy provides long-term results.
A separate virtual reality study on a smaller number of adults with autism found it can benefit them too, with five out of eight participants left feeling more equipped to cope with their phobias in day-to-day life. Both studies were conducted with Third Eye NeuroTech.
The virtual reality environment in the study, called the Blue Room, was personalised to each of the 32 children aged 8-14 who took part. A psychologist accompanied each child for four sessions in the Blue Room, spread across one week, with their parents able to watch via video link. Having learned to approach their phobia through virtual reality scenarios, the children then faced their phobia in real life. Just two weeks after therapy, 40% of children showed signs of improvement in dealing with their phobia; this rose to 45% six months after treatment.
“People with autism can find imagining a scene difficult which is why the Blue Room is so well-received,” said Dr. Morag Maskey of the Instititute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. “We are providing the feared situation in a controlled way, through virtual reality, and sitting alongside them to help them learn how to manage their fears.”
Though they may share some common fears or phobias with non-autistic children, such as a fear of dogs or balloons (both tackled in this study), children with autism may also have less well-known fears to overcome; for example, the noise of vacuum cleaners, blenders and hand dryers could all trigger intense panic. It’s estimated that 25% of autistic children suffer from fears and phobias; aside from this, a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can often go hand in hand with anxiety disorders.
Whilst this recent research hones in on the potential for managing phobias, using virtual technology to help autistic children is nothing new in itself, with over 20 years’ worth of studies from academics.
There are also several apps and programs available to help children approach new environments and practice common social situations, like using public transport or going to school. People with autism have difficulty blocking out external stimulation, and can be heavily affected by background noise, crowds, bright lights and other stimuli. Apps such as Floreo have been specifically designed to be guided by parents or therapists, allowing them to keep updated on a child’s progress.
Virtual reality can also be effective at communicating what it feels like to have autism, so those who don’t have the condition can understand its effects. The National Autistic Society created a video, Too Much Information, that can now be viewed with cardboard goggles in a 360-degree experience. To date, 56 million people have used the video to better understand the condition.
It’s great to see technology being harnessed to help the autistic community. With such positive research results, nobody can deny that technology is a valuable tool for psychologists, teachers and for families with an autistic child.
Morag Maskey, Jacqui Rodgers, Victoria Grahame, Magdalena Glod, Emma Honey, Julia Kinnear, Marie Labus, Jenny Milne, Dimitrios Minos, Helen McConachie, Jeremy R. Parr. A Randomised Controlled Feasibility Trial of Immersive Virtual Reality Treatment with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Specific Phobias in Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2019
Morag Maskey, Jacqui Rodgers, Barry Ingham, Mark Freeston, Gemma Evans, Marie Labus, Jeremy R. Parr. Using Virtual Reality Environments to Augment Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Fears and Phobias in Autistic Adults. Autism in Adulthood, 2019