Leading specialists at Newcastle University are using cutting edge technology to help children with autism overcome their fears and phobias. Autism can affect a child’s learning and development, often resulting in impaired social and communication skills and many also have fears or phobias which can be very distressing but are often overlooked.
Working alongside innovative technology firm Third Eye Technologies, the Newcastle University team have developed The Blue Room. Accompanied by a psychologist, the child enters The Blue Room and is surrounded with audio visual images representing the 'real world'. This world is a 360 degree seamless screened room with no point of external reference. Within this virtual environment, the child can comfortably investigate and navigate through various scenarios using iPad controls but remain in full control of the situation.
“Currently the main treatment for fears and phobias is cognitive behavioural therapy,” says Dr Jeremy Parr, who led the team of clinical academics on the project. “But that often doesn’t work for a child with autism as it relies on them being able to use their imagination. Situation-specific anxieties, fears and phobias can completely prevent a child with autism from taking part in normal family or school life and there are very few treatment options available to them."
The flexibility of The Blue Room means that scenes can be gradually built up in complexity and noise level, allowing a graded exposure and an element of control that cannot be achieved in real life such as boarding a bus, crossing a bridge and shopping and interacting with a shop assistant. Parents are also able to watch the techniques being used to help their child via video-link.
Initial trials found that the majority of children who participated were able to tackle their phobias, while a number of the participants overcame their phobias completely. As a result, the new virtual reality treatment is now being offered on the NHS.
“Children with autism can find imagining a scene difficult but by providing it physically in front of their eyes we can sit alongside them and help them learn how to manage their fears,” explains Dr Parr. “To see children able to face a situation that they previously found so distressing, such as going into a shop, after just four sessions in the treatment room is amazing. It makes a huge difference to their lives.”