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Interactive Robot Helps Children With Autism (VIDEO)

Mar 21, 2013 10:27 AM EDT
Researchers are pushing for an early diagnosis of autism spectrum diseases in children, which could lead to improved results for children and their families.
(Photo : Joe Howell / Vanderbilt)

Scientists at Vanderbilt University have developed an elaborate therapy system that makes use of a humanoid robot in treatment for autistic children.

The robot acts as an interactive "front man" for a system of camera, sensors and computers designed specifically to help autistic children learn how to coordinate their attention with other people and objects in their environment.

The researchers report that children with autism paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions almost as well as they did of those of a human therapist.

Children with autism have difficulty developing a social skill called joint interaction, which is when two individuals share focus of an object. Joint interaction develops naturally in typical children, but children with autism have difficulty mastering it, which can result in the development of a variety of different learning issues as the children age.

The Vanderbilt team demonstrated that robotic systems may be powerful tools in in enhancing the basic social learning skills of children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

"This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism," said Zachary Warren, a member of the interdisciplinary team of engineers and autism experts that conducted the study, in a release from Vanderbilt. 

In the test, a boy with ASD is placed in a room with cameras, sensors and interactive monitors. A two-foot tall robot called NAO (pronounced 'now') is the waypoint for all the systems.

NAO interacts with the autistic children in a one-on-one environment, helping the child develop skills like following the robot's gaze and gestures.

The researchers found that children with ASD spend significantly more time looking at the robot than children without autism.

Robot therapy would not take the place of a therapist, but it can be used as a tool for treatment.

A paper on the robotic autism therapy is published in the March issue of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

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