VPMI partnership creates virtual system to treat selective mutism

The Brock-Niagara Validation, Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute (VPMI) connects Brock University’s advanced scientific and applied research expertise, state-of-the-art equipment assets, and testing and training capabilities with industry in the bioproducts, bioscience, bioagriculture and chemical manufacturing sectors. VPMI is made possible by a $6-million investment announced in 2019 by the Government of Canada, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). Examples of these successful VPMI-industry partnerships are highlighted in this series. For more information, contact vpmi@brocku.ca

Poling Bork had a nightmare experience no parent should ever have to go through.

While in a neighbour’s pool, her young daughter inadvertently ended up in the deep end. Not knowing how to swim, the girl struggled and found herself in deep distress.

But she didn’t make a sound.

“Somebody saw her and pulled her out of the water,” Bork recalls. “The worst part for her was that she wasn’t able to say, ‘thank you’ to the person who rescued her.”

Bork’s daughter, and her other two children, have a condition called selective mutism (SM), which Anxiety Canada defines as being “a childhood anxiety disorder that is diagnosed when a child consistently does not speak in some situations, but speaks comfortably in other situations.”

Fast forward to more than a decade later and Bork (BSc ’02, Med ’08, PhD ’16) has partnered with Associate Professor of Psychology Dawn Good to create a one-of-a-kind virtual reality (VR) treatment for those living with SM, with support from the Brock-Niagara Validation, Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute (VPMI).

The VR software program places the individual with SM in simulated scenarios and social contexts they would encounter in everyday life, such as interacting with classmates and the teacher in a classroom, visiting a doctor’s office or ordering food from a restaurant.

Characters, who are either created virtually or portrayed by actual people through videos, are pre-programmed to ask the user questions or provide responses to questions. The user practices answering the character and making conversation as a way of slowly desensitizing them to the anxiety that prevents them from being verbal in real life.

Those who use the program can work through the challenges based on their comfort level by muting the sound, pausing the scene or using other features as they work through their anxieties at their own pace.

“This way, anyone with SM may practice speaking at any time, always in a safe, non-demanding context,” says Bork, a Senior Laboratory Instructor in Brock’s Department of Computer Science. “They can use the simulated environment to start training the older children, teenagers and adults to overcome the freezing-up that comes with the selected mutism condition. This is the first self-serve virtual reality program to treat this condition.”

This program is a key focus supported by The Selective Mutism Foundation. Bork founded the organization, which supports people with SM by sharing resources, recommending options, fostering research and creating supportive networks worldwide.

The non-profit charitable organization sprung out of Bork’s years of research, experiences with various medications and behavioural therapies, and PhD studies. Good, a neuroscientist and registered psychologist with expertise in neurodivergence, was one of Bork’s PhD examiners and co-organizer of Canada’s first-ever Selective Mutism Conference.

Good says children living with SM are capable of speaking to family members and other people they trust in private, but intense anxiety involuntarily blocks them from doing so in particular situations, such as when interacting with unfamiliar people or being out in public.

Conventional behavioural therapy treatment takes a desensitization approach, which involves getting individuals with SM out of their comfort zone by slowly, progressively exposing them to more challenging environments, says Good.

“We can get them over the challenge of being unable to seek help from a therapist and work through their fear of speech by practicing in the simulated social contexts over and over, until their action becomes automatic,” she says.

Bork says preliminary findings from the VR trials revealed the VR app was well received by participants, believing it would be a great tool to help them overcome SM.

“It is our hope that we may conduct a clinical trial to validate its efficacy in the near future,” she says.

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