The number of children in the United States who are being diagnosed with autism is on the rise.
Traditional therapies to help autistic children develop their social skills can be time consuming and expensive. Recently, however, scientific researchers at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, in the US state of Tennessee, may have overcome that challenge with the help of a robot.
The pioneering work is still in its earliest stages, but the results appear to be promising.
One of the children involved with the study is three-year-old Aiden. Learning doesn’t come easily for him. As a result of his autism, Aiden often struggles with social interactions. He’s been working with a therapist to address his learning challenges, but he’s also getting help from an unlikely source – a robot named NAO.
NAO is a commercial robot developed in France. What makes the robot different is the “intelligent environment” researchers have built. This aspect of his machinery consists of web cameras and TVs to track Aiden’s head movements and analyse his emotional state.
The information is then transmitted to a computer that programs the robot to respond to Aiden’s needs and instruct him through verbal prompts.
When NAO says, “Look here, Aiden,” incredibly, the boy responds to the command from his robotic “therapist” almost every time. That’s not always the case when Aiden is prompted by a human.
Researchers are still not fully sure why this happens, but seem convinced what makes robot therapy so successful is NAO’s ability to communicate with autistic children in a way most humans cannot.
Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt, lead the study.
He told me, “If the robot determines that some of the gestures a child is not able to do, it can correct the gestures in a playful way, having them involved, not as a teacher or student, but as a playmate.“
Sarkar says this seems to be reassuring to autistic children who can quickly become disengaged from a teaching session if they believe they are not measuring up to the expectations of their human therapist.
Sarkar says he got the idea for creating the robot after visiting a relative in India whose child also suffers from autism. He realised there may be a need for robot “therapists” after observing how that child responded well to technology, but struggled with human social interactions.
Sarkar’s breakthrough work comes at a critical time. It’s hoped robots like NAO will play a crucial role in dealing with the increasing number of cases of autism in the US. Today, one-in-88 children is being diagnosed with autism.
Zachary Warren, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, says Sarkar’s research is still new, but early results suggest a promising future for robot therapy.
“This model of thinking, of using definite tools, robots and computers at critical periods of development, might be one of the big contributions of this work. It might prime children for learning complex tasks. We might have something very impactful here,” he told me.
Warren cautions robot therapy is not designed, and could never replace human, therapists. Still, he is hopeful it will become a valuable companion tool to more traditional therapies.
He says as the number of autism cases continues to rise, budgets for treatment, will become even more constrained.
Robot therapies, he hopes, will help offset some of those costs, and help autistic children everywhere gain the social skills they need.