Newcastle University is now providing treatment to Autistic children with anxiety and phobias using immersive Virtual Reality technology.
The invention uses Third Eye’s unique ‘Blue Room’ system which allows for complete immersion in a rich and detailed virtual world.
Dr Jeremy Parr, one of the researchers involved with the project and a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University, explains that
“currently the main treatment [for fears and phobias] is cognitive behaviour therapy but that often doesn’t work for a child with autism as it relies on their imagination.
“People with autism can find imagining a scene difficult, so by providing it physically in front of the child’s eyes we can sit alongside them and help them learn how to manage their fears.”
Dr Parr also suggested the treatment would be easy scalable. The team have worked with Third Eye to develop ‘Blue Room Suites’ to be deployed on existing sites. It is also believed the treatment may be expanded to non-Autistic people, but this has not been evaluated.
Fears and phobias can affect anyone, but for Autistic people the anxiety can centre on events which are particularly problematic to manage – like getting on a crowded bus, crossing a bridge or talking to a shop assistant.
A psychologist accompanies the child in the immersive experience, guiding them with coping strategies, such as breathing exercises, to help them learn how to control their fears outside of the treatment environment.
Full control over the experience is given to the child, as they interact with the scenes using a tablet. This is important as it allows for the child to explore their fears at their own pace, and reassures them as their exposure to the situation can be limited or stopped at any time.
Additionally, the exposure can be gradually increased – something which is difficult or impossible to achieve in real-life – and this means that the child can be acclimatised gradually to increasingly challenging environments.
The parents of the child can also be involved. They watch the treatment sessions via a unique video-link, allowing them to see the fear-management techniques being used and learn how to help their child to implement those in real-life.
For autistic children wearing virtual reality apparatus such as headsets and goggles can be distressing, therefore the use of Blue Room is a valuable resource. It allows these children to feel less anxious and engage in treatment.
Initial indications show that the treatment is very effective. In a 2013 trial of nine children, seven exhibited significant improvement with their fear-management capabilities and four completely overcame their phobia. Many of the children involved with the 2013 trial report that the effects of the treatment persisted even after a year.
The service is provided by the Complex Neurodevelopmental Disorders Service, a part of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with Third Eye Technologies of Consett, County Durham.
A wider clinical trial is being carried out with the results due for publication in 2017. The work has been produced with the Newcastle Academic Health Partners, a collaborative consortium of Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, NTW NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University. The group aims to use expertise from all institutions to bring patients benefit sooner from novel treatments, diagnostics and prevention strategies.