Children with social anxiety disorder often benefit from a setting that allows them to go at their own pace. An ideal environment would include a non-stressful location that gives the child time to practice social skills and gain confidence in particular social situations.
New research shows how technology can be used to create an ideal setting for teaching skills to children with anxiety.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida’s Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better developed a new, one-of-a-kind computer simulation program that enables children to interact with avatars playing the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal.
The simulation, designed for children ages 8 to 12, allows clinicians to play the roles of the avatars while the children sit at a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely.
The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and answering questions.
“These kids come in and say, ‘I don’t know how to make a friend,'” said Dr. Deborah Beidel, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and a psychology professor at UCF. “We have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people.”
Many children are nervous and slow to warm up in new social situations, but those with social anxiety disorders have severe distress that doesn’t go away, Beidel said.
“If a fear is so severe that it prevents a child from doing something he or she should be doing, such as going to school, playing on a sports team, being in a dance recital, going to birthday parties or making friends, then a parent should call a mental health professional,” she said.
UCF has addressed children’s anxiety disorders for over five years. Biedel has lead an Anxiety Disorder Clinic that, according to Beidel, provides “gold standard” treatments.
The gold standard ranking comes from the method by which the clinic addresses anxiety disorders –rather than using medication or other forms of invasive interventions, children are paired with socially comfortable peers for outings to places such as bowling alleys, restaurants and miniature golf courses.
The new study will expand the treatment options at the clinic. The new intervention is also a more realistic method for parents in most communities. Many clinicians who treat children don’t have the time or resources to recruit socially comfortable children and organize regular outings.
Guiding clients through a simulation in the office may be the only feasible solution for them.
The simulation features a realistic school setting, designed with the help of elementary school teachers. The pre-programmed responses of the avatar classmates cwhich include a cool girl, a smart girl and a bully – were recorded by children to ensure the language reflects how they talk.
“The most important thing is that this was designed by clinicians with a very specific intention to help people get better. That’s the big difference between this and a game, and there is nothing like this on the market,” said Dr. Josh Spitalnick, a clinical psychologist with Virtually Better.
The six characters and the varying levels of difficulty in the simulation allow clinicians to design scenarios appropriate for their patients. More challenging scenarios include dealing with a bully who is demanding that a child give up some of her lunch money.
If the initial trial goes well, researchers hope to conduct a yearlong trial with more children. If that is successful, the simulation could then become available to clinicians. The program eventually could be expanded to include other settings, such as playgrounds, and to serve other children who need help improving social skills.
The 12-week program will begin this summer and involve 30 Central Florida children ages 8 to 12.
Source: University of Central Florida