Autism is a complex condition that often necessitates several different types of support that can help make the individual's life easier and less stressful to navigate. Research indicates that around 25 percent of autistic children are affected by phobias that can have an at-times debilitating effect on how the child copes in the social world.
These can include but are not limited to fear of public transport, classrooms, animals or balloons. One of the ways of combating the effects of these phobias is through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), however an aspect of this therapy involves using imagination and visualisation. This poses a difficulty for use within autistic populations as these are activities autistic people tend to struggle with.
To tackle this problem, a recent study examined the effect of using virtual reality therapy to treat phobias in autistic children. The research was conducted in the Blue Room, an immersive VR experience which was developed by specialists at Newcastle University working alongside innovative technology firm Third Eye NeuroTech.
The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), and is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Exploring the VR environment does not require a headset, leaving the children able to interact with the 360-degree environment unimpaired.
"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," says Professor Jeremy Parr, who led the study.
"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."
The research involved a controlled and randomised trial involving 32 children aged between 8-14. Half of the group were the controls and didn't receive the same treatment until six months later.
The treatment involved four sessions in a week in the Blue Room, which involved personalised VR therapy scenarios led by a psychologist.
The results showed that 25 percent of the group experienced an alleviation in the experience of the phobia two weeks after the treatment ended. Interestingly, this increased to 38 percent after six months, with six children showing improvement. One child showed a worsening however, although this number was considerably higher in the control group, with five children's symptoms getting worse.
One patient, Harry, used to suffer an intense fear of dogs, entering a panic if one ever approached him. However, after experiencing different scenarios with dogs, for example, greeting them on the street or on the beach, Harry does not experience fear anymore and actually lives with a dog in his family home.
"As soon as Harry saw a dog he would become hysterical, screaming and running away," says Parr. "This was very dangerous as he would not look at where he was running, even if it was onto a road, as he just wanted to be nowhere near the animal.
"If we went to friends' houses they would have to lock their dogs away and it was incredibly difficult to go to the beach as dogs are everywhere there.
"I am so glad that he took part in the Blue Room and that he's had long-term effects from it. I would certainly recommend that other autistic children try this form of therapy as it involves no medication and has no side-effects."
Follow-up research is now being conducted on the differences in how children responded. The treatment is also available to adults too and has been trialled with excellent results.