Robotic Therapist Helps Train Kids With Autism Disorder

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

One two-foot-tall humanoid robot is acting as a therapist to help train children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The humanoid robot NAO (pronounced “now”) features an elaborate system of cameras, sensors and computers designed to help children learn how to coordinate their attention with other people and objects. Known to researchers as ℠joint attention´, children with autism typically have a difficult time mastering this social skill — which is where NAO comes in.

Researchers wrote in the March issue of the publication IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering that children with ASD paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions almost as well as they did that of a human therapist in standard exercises.

The authors suggest that robots could play a crucial role in responding to the growing number of children being diagnosed with ASD. According to recent statistics, there has been a 78 percent increase in ASD diagnoses in the past four years.

“This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism,” said team member Zachary Warren, who directs the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt´s Kennedy Center.

NAO is a commercial humanoid robot made in France, so the team had to essentially build the brains of the robot beforehand. In order to get NAO to work with children, the researchers had to develop a sophisticated adaptive structure around the robot that they dubbed Adaptive Robot-Mediated Intervention Architecture (ARIA). They say their system has the greatest potential for working with young children.

“Research has shown that early intervention, individualized to the learner´s needs, is currently the most effective approach for helping children with autism develop the foundational social communication skills they need to become productive adults,” said“¯Julie Crittendon, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The team created an “intelligent environment” around NAO, where the robot stands on a table at the front of the room and the child sits in a chair at eye level with it. The room is equipped with a number of web cameras aimed at the chair to track the child’s head movements, which allows the system to determine whether he or she is paying attention.

They programmed NAO to have a series of verbal prompts like “look over here” and “let’s do some more.” The robot also has gestures like looking and pointing at one of the displays in the room.

The training sessions begin with a verbal prompt that asks the child to look at an image or video displayed on one of the screens. If the child doesn’t respond, the therapists provide increasing support by combining a verbal prompt with physical gestures. Once the child looks at the target, the therapist responds with “good job.”

Researchers found that children in groups who spent time with the robot versus those who spent time training with a human-led therapist actually looked at NAO more than they did the real therapist.

“The children´s engagement with the robot was excellent,” Crittendon said, “and we saw improvements across the board in both groups.”

NAO is also able to adapt its behavior to each child automatically depending on how he or she is responding to the prompts — an effective tool since all children with ASD tend to behave a little bit differently.

“There is a saying in the field, ℠If you´ve seen one child with ASD, you´ve seen one child with ASD.´ So one size does not fit all. To be useful, the system must be adaptive,” Warren said.

He said he hopes the robotic system can act as an “accelerant technology” that increases the rate at which children with ASD learn the social skills they need.

NAO is not just a one-trick-pony robot when it comes to education. NAO was named the best robot for education as part of Carnegie Mellon’s “Robot Hall of Fame” competition last year.

“NAO has provided us with an exciting tool to teach students robotics, to introduce robotics related concepts and to show how robots can be applied in the real world,” said Timothy Gifford, researcher at UConn, and CEO of Movia Robotics.

The robot also showed off its dance skills last year when redOrbit attended the 2012 ICRA last year.

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