Why Use Robots with Children with Autism? part 2

by Emotion Robotics on the 13/01/2015 15:20:47

In the first part of this blog post we discussed what autism was and the scale of the affect of autism on our world. Today we will get into the meat of the discussion, Why Use Robots with Children with Autism?

Firstly, an observation: Many children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder seem to be drawn to technology.

I have seen this discussed and commented on in a number of places on the internet but I have also observed this myself. I met a family with a 12 year old son who has been diagnosed with autism. In the afternoon we spent together, (we were at a Nao development event as his Dad is also a member of the Nao Developer Program), I noticed that he was most content when playing on his iPad. So surely we can use this natural attraction to technology to help autistic children?

Well, there are mixed opinions about this. Haifa University Professor Tamar Weiss, a leading expert on the use of technology in autism research, said, in a Times of Israel article;

“Kids are attracted to technology, and computers and devices like iPads can appear to help draw autistic kids out of their shell, but sometimes that attraction is not a good thing. Kids with autism ignore social interactions, so they often feel very comfortable with computers, because using them is a singular activity. They can sit with an iPad for a whole day and never look up even once.”

Weiss continued that the real trick was to leverage the attraction to technology into an activity to make the child more social.

Enter our robot friends, or more specifically, enter our humanoid robot friends.

Why Humanoid Robots?

Many autistic children have difficulty interpreting communication keys we take for granted. Facial expression, voice intonation, nuances in spoken pitch and speed can all become bewildering and act as a barrier to social interaction. So what if we remove some of these factors to allow the child to experience the basic elements of social interaction? Remove the facial expression confusion and use repeatable, consistent vocal patterns. This can allow the child to start to interact, and these elements can be gradually reintroduced as they grow in confidence.

Take a look at the picture to the left. Nao is a humanoid robot that provides an appealing shape and appearance but has a non-expressive face. We can also control the speed and pitch of his voice, providing a very repeatable vocal experience. So two of the issues that can cause problems for autistic children can be addressed with Nao. The other issue raised by Tamar Weiss, with regard to screen based technology isolating children with autism, can be addressed through the 3D nature of our robot. By developing robotic behaviours that mimic human movements and interactions, and offer rewards for social interaction, a positive reinforcement can be provided to the autistic child. This can lead to improved social interaction by breaking down the 'fear' element the child experiences.

So we have, in our hands today, a 3 dimensional technology, that is appealing to autistic children, overcomes a number of their apprehensions about social interaction, and encourages them to be more extrovert than introvert.

If it sounds a little too good to be true let's just say we are at the start of this journey. There is a lot to learn and a lot of paths to travel along, but companies like Aldebaran Robotics, with their ASK Nao program are actively exploring these areas. Google the TopCliffe Primary School in Birmingham and see how Ian Lowe (Headmaster) and his staff, working with Aldebaran, are already using this technology to help autistic children. It is truly inspirational and has been covered by both local, national and international news carriers, including ITV and SKY.  Here is a link to a couple of stories shown on ITV Central News, look at those kids starting to communicate and interact and tell me this isn't one of the most exciting applications of robotics to date.