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Researchers have helped create apps and online platforms to assist children with autism. But one team at Vanderbilt University is introducing something which may have a leg up on capturing kids’ attention: humanoid robots.
Mechanical engineers and autism experts constructed an adaptive system using NAO, a fully-programmable robot. Paired with cameras, sensors and computers, the friendly robot is designed to help children develop basic social learning skills. (Check out the video above for more).
The system structure, called ARIA (Adaptive Robot-Mediated Intervention Architecture), uses the robot to give verbal prompts and gestures to the child to attract their attention. While eye contact is a natural skill for most developing children, those with autism may find it more difficult to maintain with other people and surrounding objects.
The team’s study found that those with an autism spectrum disorder spent significantly more time looking at the humanoid robot than a typically developing child.
Children engage more with NAO compared to its human therapist counterpart because of less intimidation and anxiety
Children engage more with NAO compared to its human therapist counterpart because of less intimidation and anxiety, says Nilanjan Sarkar, a Vanderbilt professor of mechanical engineering.
“Children experience anxiety dealing with people because they think they have to live up to expectations,” Sarkar tells Mashable. “Here, they know the robot doesn’t expect anything and so they’re not intimated by demands, whereas a human therapist may get annoyed or impatient.”
Prompt levels increase with the child’s reaction, and the robot will work with screens around the room to introduce songs and videos to trigger interest. When the participant performs responsively, NAO gives encouragement. If the child doesn’t respond, it provides additional support by combining prompts and gestures.
Socializing robots like Keepon may also help children with autism to communicate and interact, but the ARIA system can serve as a supplement to early therapy.
Oftentimes there are waiting period of weeks or months for treatment, but with further study Sarkar says the robot can serve as an interim learning tool.
“Some children are diagnosed but there’s no immediate therapist available,” he says. “If it proves effective, it can be used at home or along with a therapist so they can monitor multiple children during a session.”