Why use Robots with Children with Autism (part 1)

by Emotion Robotics on the 13/01/2015 15:00:02

Since I have been talking about my Nao work with autism and Aldebaran Robotic's launch of their ASK (Assist Kids with Robots) Nao community, a number of people have asked what use are robots to autistic kids and how are they used.

Well, firstly, some 4 years ago, I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Nao Developer Program, and then doubly lucky that some of my Nao programs have been useful to the Autistic community. This has enabled me to be involved in something truly amazing, something that has actually changed people's lives and, as it grows, will help a lot more. So this is a layman's view, probably wrong in places, but it a snapshot of my current view of this area and my limited understanding.

What is Autism?

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is described by The National Autism Society of the United Kingdom as:

“....a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them.
It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism.”

What is the scale of Autism in the World

Olivier Joubert (Neuropsychology Ph.D), the head of the Autism Business Unit at Aldebaran Robotics, has written an interesting blog article about the impact of autism. He shows the scale of Autism in the world by likening our current situation to a country of Autistic people. It is well worth the read but to pick a couple of statistics that are very telling:

  •     In the USA, 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism.
  •     In the UK, 1 in 100 children are diagnosed with autism.
  •     In France, 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism.

Let’s put that into perspective. Most people have heard of congenital muscular dystrophy, a devastating disorder. In the UK there are no frequency figures, but it is estimated that 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 50,000 children are born with the disorder. Just look at those numbers for one moment. 1 in 20,000 compared to 1 in 100. Don’t get me wrong, I have a friend whose daughter has congenital muscular dystrophy and I will do whatever I can to support her and the charities that support those affected. But there are 200 hundred people affected by ASD for each person affected by congenital muscular dystrophy.

To paraphrase Olivier Joubert,

“Considering that the ASD rate currently increases of about 17% per year (CDC 2012), we can safely say that the worldwide community of people with autism will represent several tens of millions of people within the next few years, if not already. if autism was a country it would have a population larger than Australia.”

How many Australians do you know?

So that, hopefully, gives you a feel for what autism is and how it affects our world. It is increasing and we need to embrace these amazing members of our society. My next blog post will actually address the topic of this post, Why Use Robots With Autistic Children.