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Robots could fill in for autism therapists

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Jessica Wright
6 February 2013

Follow my lead: A commercially available robot can teach children with autism to look where it's pointing.

Robots may be able to help treat children with autism when qualified therapists aren't available, according to a study published 3 December in IEEE Translational Neural Systems Rehabilitation Engingeering1.

The researchers designed a setup that allows a human-like robot to interact with children without ongoing input from trained professionals.

There are several available robots designed for children with autism. In the past few years, companies have developed robots ranging from a brontosaurus that needs encouragement to cross a cartoon river to a disembodied female head that models human emotions. Children with autism who respond eagerly to the robots improve in their social behavior after engaging with them. 

In the new study, researchers designed a setup in which NAO, a two-foot high commercially available robot capable of fluid human-like movements, interacts with children who have autism. The robot teaches the children joint attention skills, the ability to follow others’ prompts. Studies suggest that learning this skill at a young age can improve the long-term outcome for people with the disorder.

For the intervention, a child with autism sits in a room with NAO. The room has two cameras and the child wears an infrared sensor attached to a baseball cap. Together, the cameras and sensor detect where the child is looking, and can relay the information to the robot, which responds accordingly.

The robot attempts to get the child to look at one of two monitors in the room. He first turns his head to the monitor and tells the child to look, addressing him by name. If this doesn't work, the robot points to the monitor, and repeats these actions with a sound and then a still image displayed on the monitor.

When the child does look in the right direction, the robot tells him he did a good job and the monitor plays a short video clip from a children's show such as ‘Bob the Builder.’

The researchers assessed this with six children who have autism and six controls, all ranging in age from 2 to 5 years. Each child sat through four sessions lasting two to four minutes, half with a therapist and half with the robot.

In each case, the children with autism needed more prompts than controls did to look at the monitor, the study found. Still, the robot was able to get the children with autism to look at the monitor 96 percent of the time when it used video prompts and 77 percent of the time when it didn’t.

Both groups of children needed fewer prompts to look at the monitor with the therapist than with the robot. This may be because the robot is novel and interesting to them. This difference may fade away over time, improving the robot's effectiveness, the researchers say.

News and Opinion articles on SFARI.org are editorially independent of the Simons Foundation.


1: Bekele E. et al. IEEE Trans. Neural Syst. Rehabil. Eng. Epub ahead of print (2012) PubMed


Name: usethebrainsgodgiveyou
12 February 2013 - 3:28PM

It seems so cold, but I think the real success lies in the novelty of the situation. That, and the engineering appeal. For many autistics, humans are a source of constant pain and feelings of inadequacy. The novelty of the robot would be a constant predictable visuallly stimulating source of information that was not critical. I think it's better than behavioral intervention, which is just cruel.

Has there been any new work done on families of engineers and the frequency of autism? My son is going into engineering, and I knew of another engineer whose 4 nephews received a diagnosis of autism. It happens too frequently to just be coincidence.

Realistically, the appeal here is not that it takes the place of humans, but that it is highly novel, which appeals to the autistic mind. Autistics are far more sensitive to criticism than they let on.

Name: Greg Boustead
12 February 2013 - 3:38PM

Hi usethebrain,

We recently covered a new large-scale study that provides the first broad support for the common conception that people with autism gravitate to more technological careers, such as engineering.

You can find the article here: http://sfari.org/news-and-opinion/blog/2012/science-majors


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