Date: 15 February 2019
An immersive virtual reality environment developed with funding from NIHR has been shown to help children with autism learn how to manage fears and phobias. Nearly 45% of children showed improvement in their ability to cope with phobias after six months, and the treatment has also shown benefits for autistic adults.
The research, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, uses a personalised virtual environment called The Blue Room. The room doesn’t require goggles, and has been developed by specialists at Newcastle University alongside technology firm Third Eye Neurotech.
The Blue Room allows children to comfortably investigate different scenarios that might trigger their anxiety, working with a therapist using iPad controls so that they remain in full control of the situation. It’s estimated that fears and phobias affect around 25% of children with autism - those taking part in the trial had phobias that included travelling on public transport, school classrooms, dogs and balloons.
The researchers tested the therapy with a group of 32 children with autism aged 8 - 14. Half received treatment in the Blue Room straight away and half acted as a control group, receiving delayed treatment six months later.
Accompanied by a psychologist, the children had four sessions in a week involving a personalised scenario in the Blue Room. Parents were able to watch the sessions via a video link. After receiving the treatment and with the support of their parents, the children were introduced to the scenario in the real world.
Two weeks after treatment, four of the first 16 participants (25%) were able to cope with a specific phobia. After six months, six children (38%) in the immediate treatment group showed improvement, while one reported a worsening of their phobia. Meanwhile, in the control group, five untreated participants had become worse in the six months.
Dr Morag Maskey, researcher from the Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, said: “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. 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.”
Harry Mainwaring, 11, was treated as part of the study to help tackle his fear of dogs. The research team created a personalised 360 degree environment involving dogs and different situations where he might encounter them, such as a street or beach. The treatment was so effective that Harry now has his own dog. Lizzie Mainwaring, Harry’s mother, said:
“As soon as Harry saw a dog he would become hysterical, screaming and running away. 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.
“Harry had just turned eight when he was part of the Blue Room study. He had a total of four sessions and the results have been fantastic – in fact, they’ve been life-changing.
“It is amazing to see how Harry now is with dogs. He loves our dog and whenever he sees others he’s happy if they approach him and he’ll stroke them. I am so glad that he took part in the Blue Room and that he’s had long-term effects from it.”
Overall, 40% of the children treated (across both groups) showed improvement after two weeks of treatment, and 45% at six months. This improvement is comparable with other treatments and the team aim to investigate why some children don’t respond as well as others.
In a separate study, published in Autism in Adulthood, the Blue Room treatment was also offered to autistic adults, and shown to work in five out of the eight participants, aged 18-57. The adults had four 20 minute sessions and five of them showed improvements in relation to their phobia six months later.
NHS treatment using the Blue Room is available to UK families through the Complex Neurodevelopmental Disorders Service at Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust. Alongside the NHS Service, the Newcastle University team are continuing further research into the effectiveness and lasting effect of the Blue Room.
Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said: “There is no reason why autism should prevent people from living happy lives and this is an excellent example of how technology can help autistic people overcome their fears.
“As part of our Long Term Plan for the NHS, we are determined to transform care and support for autistic people and end the health inequalities they currently face - by 2024 every child with the most complex needs will have a dedicated person to look after their needs."
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