Virtual learning for autistic children

Ella Rhodes reports.

The Blue Room, a unique immersive virtual reality that helps children with autism overcome their fears and phobias, is now being offered on the NHS. Research on the treatment, published in PLOS One, revealed eight out of nine children treated with this technique were able to tackle the situation they feared and some were found to have completely overcome their phobias, even a year later.

Developed by researchers at Newcastle University and Third Eye Technologies, the room can be used to create personalised scenarios. Accompanied by a psychologist, a child is completely surrounded by audio-visual images representing the ‘real world’ in the 360-degree seamless screened room with no point of external reference. This means they do not have to wear a headset or goggles, which children with autism can find distressing.

They move around the scene using iPad controls, allowing them to fully interact with and navigate through the environment. Scenarios tested already include getting on a busy bus, crossing a bridge, going shopping or talking to an avatar shop assistant. Supported by a psychologist, they are given breathing and relaxation exercises in the controllable and safe virtual environment to help them to learn to cope with that situation. They are observed by their parents via a video-link, which enables them to watch the techniques used to help their child.

Now the treatment is available as an NHS service, where there is funding by the children’s Clinical Commissioning Group, and each child referred will receive four sessions at the facility in County Durham. The flexibility of the Blue Room means scenes can gradually build in complexity and noise level, allowing a graded exposure and control that can’t be achieved in real life.

Dr Jeremy Parr is a Clinical Senior Lecturer specialising in Paediatric Neurodisability at Newcastle University and works within the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, which is providing the service. He said: ‘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. Currently, the main treatment 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.’

A larger-scale clinical study is being carried out to examine the long-term effectiveness. 

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