How Virtual Reality May Reduce Fear And Anxiety In Adults With Autism

Results of a new pilot study indicate that a combination treatment approach using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and immersive virtual reality environments (VRE) produced significant functional improvement in autistic adults with phobias and anxiety.

3d rendering of virtual human in VR headset on futuristic technology and programming languages background represent virtual reality technology .GETTY

The study was recently published in the journal, Autism in AdulthoodS

The combination treatment utilized a graded exposure to fear and anxiety-provoking experiences using virtual reality in 8 adults, ages 18-57. The participants viewed an educational module to learn anxiety management techniques, along with 4 additional sessions with escalating exposure to the phobia or triggering stimulus using immersive VRE. After 4 sessions, each participant was then exposed to real-life fears and phobias with their supporter. Researchers measured progress at 6 weeks and 6 months after the last VRE session.

Results of the study indicated that 5 of 8 participants were responders to the intervention, with measurable improvements in levels of anxiety and enhanced ability to manage phobias that impacted their lives. The findings of this small study demonstrated that VRE provided relief of anxiety and fears and may be an effective treatment for anxiety in autistic adults .

Prior research has indicated success using VRE to treat phobias  in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so further studies will be necessary to confirm and expand on the results of this small study.

Virtual Reality To Treat Phobias and Fear

Nearly 50% of adults with ASD deal with anxiety as well as phobias on a daily basis, drawing attention to the need to find effective real-world treatments. Phobias are relatively common in people overall, and may encompass a variety of everyday situations involving animals, insects, crowded public transportation, or fear of the open market places.

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