Robots Help Children with Autism Develop Social Skills

Social assistive robots can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop social skills while fostering appropriate behavior and communication.

 

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Image credit: Kaspar/ University of Hertfordshire

Autism is a developmental disability that comes with social, emotional, communication and behavioral challenges. Children diagnosed with autism often have trouble understanding communication and dealing with others, suffer from sensory issues and exhibit repetitive behaviors. Autism can’t be cured, but interventions in the form of different therapies can facilitate an affected child’s development, vastly improving the long-term prognosis and helping these children function more successfully in the world.  

According to the most recent available data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately one in 44 children in the US is identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the causes, symptoms and severity of each child’s ASD may differ, one of the hallmarks of the disorder seem to be common across the spectrum: impaired social functioning. 

Robots Deliver Interventions

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that early diagnosis of and intervention for autism are more likely to have major long-term positive effects. For interventions to work well, they need to include repetitive exercises. While special education staff in many school districts are trained to provide effective interventions for students with autism, these educators often cannot sustain the frequent or long sessions required to make meaningful progress. 

Some districts are opting to use Robotic Assistive Technology to provide enrichment needed to help children learn and practice skills in a fun way. Socially assistive robots can help children on the autism spectrum learn social skills, practice maintaining eye contact, and build communication skills. These tools are already in many classrooms and school resource rooms, and some are being used for home-based interventions as well.

Social robots interact with children in a unique way. They work with artificial intelligence (AI), to respond to a child’s behavior and detect where skills are lacking. They can address areas in which skills need improvement. Robots use AI to interpret a child’s speech and gestures and learn from feedback.

Children respond to the robots in ways that are entirely different from how they react to other therapies and methodologies. The robots are non-judgmental but encouraging. Robots are designed to resemble humans and come in different forms from various manufacturers and have snappy, kid-friendly names, such as Nao, Movia and Kasper. Using feedback-driven technology is fun and motivating for children.

Monitoring Engagement with Machine Learning

Researchers at the University of Southern California Department of Computer Science developed personalized learning robots and studied whether the robots could gauge a child’s interest in a task using machine learning. Researchers gave 17 children with autism a robot for one month. Robots personalized the instruction and feedback to suit individual learning patterns. They found that the robot was able to autonomously detect if the child was engaged with 90 percent accuracy.

Young child typing on screen in front of robot

Image credit: Movia Robotics

Robots can cost upwards of $2,000, plus monthly software subscription fees. However, they may be economical and cost-effective in the long run. Home-based therapies are expensive, and in schools, special education practitioners are typically stretched for time. Employing a socially assistive robot can give a child with autism more time, attention, and consistency than a human therapist, and with great results.

Learn more:

  • See the technology used by RoboKind in its Robots4Autism program.  
  • Watch a video that details socially assistive robot research from the National Science Foundation.
  • Visit the Yale University Social Robotics Lab website to explore the institution’s latest research and projects on socially assistive robots.
  • View a video to see Kaspar the Robot in action.

 

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