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Virtual Reality Environment Helps Children with Autism to Overcome Phobias

THE BLUE ROOM, a virtual reality environment built to help children with autism control their anxieties and phobias, has now been made available on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

The first patients have been referred for the treatment, which provides a safe and controlled environment for children with autism to experience and learn how to cope in difficult situations. “Situation-specific anxieties, fears, and phobias can completely stop a child with autism taking part in normal family or school life and there are very few treatment options for them,” explained Dr Jeremy Parr, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, which is providing the service. “Currently the main treatment is cognitive behaviour therapy but that often does not work for a child with autism as it relies on their imagination.”

Instead, the Blue Room works by having child enter a screened room surrounded by audio-visual images that represent the ‘real world’. Accompanied by a psychologist, the child then navigates through the virtual world and encounters personalised scenarios that would normally produce distress and anxiety. Scenarios tested already include getting on a busy bus, crossing a bridge, and going shopping. The child uses an iPad to navigate and respond to the scenarios while using breathing and relaxation exercises given to them by a psychologist to cope with the situation. A video-link to the Blue Room also enables parents to watch the techniques used to help their child.

In 2014, researchers from Newcastle University who created the Blue Room, reported in a study paper that eight out of nine children treated in the Blue Room were able to tackle a situation they feared, with some having completely overcome their phobias, just a year later. A larger study has since been carried out to examine the long-term effectiveness of the treatment with the results due later this year.

The treatment is being offered through the NHS England Commissioned Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust Complex Neurodevelopmental Disorders Service (CNDS). Each child referred for the treatment will receive four sessions in the Blue Room.

Jack Redden, Reporter

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