Institute of Neuroscience

Effectiveness of Virtual Reality treatment

Investigating the effectiveness of Virtual Reality treatment for specific phobia and fear in children and adults with autism spectrum conditions

Anxiety disorders affect around half of children and adults with autism spectrum conditions, with specific fears and phobias being one of the most common anxiety subtypes. Gradual exposure to the object of a phobia can help, but may require adaption for those with autism. One possible solution is the use of immersive virtual reality environments (VREs) that allow participants to experience those things/situations which they find difficult but in a controlled and safe environment. Participants can navigate through the situation they find anxiety provoking (e.g. a street, school, workplace) and with therapist support at all times, learn new skills to manage their anxiety.

In an initial study we showed that using a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) approach combined with an ‘immersive VRE’ reduced specific phobia or fear in young people with autism, and led to functional improvements in managing real life anxiety provoking situations. The results were published in PLoS One.

Research published in 2019
We went on to undertake a trial of the treatment through two local NHS Trusts – Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, and Tees Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust. The results showed that the treatment could be delivered by trained NHS clinicians. Families were keen to access treatment, and found it acceptable. For some children, there were improvements in their phobia, their everyday lives, and the lives of family members. You can find more information on this study on the journal website

In parallel we undertook an initial study of the treatment with autistic adults. The results were very similar to those from the children’s studies – the treatment was acceptable, and for some adults, there were improvements in their phobia, their everyday lives. This meant being able to undertake activities that were not possible prior to treatment. You can find more information on this study on the journal website

New – NHS treatment of children
This treatment is now available to families throughout the UK via the NHS – please click on this link to find out how to obtain a referral to the NHS service.

You can browse the answers to a list of ‌Autism phobia treatment questions February 2019 (PDF:211KB)

Contact the research team

Newcastle University staff and students linked to the project:

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