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New research from Daphne Jackson Fellow offers hope to young people with autism

A study carried out by Dr Morag Maskey, a Daphne Jackson Fellow at Newcastle University, published yesterday in PLoS One, shows that children with autism who experience anxiety and phobias can be helped to overcome them using a virtual reality environment called the Blue Room, and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

The study involved 9 verbally fluent children with autism (ASD) who experienced  phobias ranging from a fear of pigeons to getting on a bus.

Anxiety disorders affect  half of young people with ASD.  Gradual exposure to the object of a phobia can help, but must be adapted to each individual.  Virtual reality environments (VREs) that allow participants to become active within a computer generated 3D virtual world can help. Participants navigate through a situation they find anxiety provoking (e.g. a street or school) and with therapist support, learn new skills to manage their anxiety.

Morag explained: ‘One boy was so fearful shopping that he would walk behind his parents with his hood up, refusing to even speak to people he knew.

‘We created a petrol station kiosk scene in the Blue Room where he picked up a newspaper. With the help of the psychologist who was in the room with him, he learnt to control his anxiety with breathing and stretching exercises. He then built up confidence over four sessions until he held a conversation with the shop assistant avatar.'

The boy's parents encouraged him to do more of the shopping on his own and use the techniques they had seen him practice.

After participating in the study, 8 of the 9 children involved were able to tackle their phobia, and 4  participants completely overcame their phobia.

Morag has now successfully completed her Daphne Jackson Fellowship and is continuing her autism research at Newcastle University. She says: ‘I have never wavered from the belief that returning to academia – and in particular the area of autism research – was the right decision. During the Fellowship I have been able to  make a valuable contribution to the growing body of autism research that is being carried out worldwide.’

Reducing Specific Phobia/Fear in Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) through a Virtual Reality Environment Intervention
Morag Maskey Jessica Lowry, Jacqui Rodgers, Helen McConachie, Jeremy R. Parr. Published: July 02, 2014 PLoS One