Robots Might Make Better Teachers For Children With Autism

Bryan P. Carpender for – Your Universe Online

It’s known that many children with autism have an affinity for technology.

Now, scientists at Vanderbilt University — with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — are leveraging that fact by developing a learning environment for autistic children that is built on the foundation of state-of-the-art technology.

One such example of that technology is “Russell”, a humanoid robot who works with the children to engage them and help them develop an ability to imitate others, a skill essential to learning.

[ Watch the Video: Humanoid Robot Engages Children With Autism ]

“Children with autism spectrum disorders have really early impairments in social interaction and social communication,” says Zachary Warren, a psychologist working on the innovative project at Vanderbilt University.

Nilanjan Sarkar, the mechanical and computer engineer and Warren’s partner on the project, explains that while these children experience difficulty with social interaction, “they tend to understand the physical world much better than the social world.” That’s where Russell comes into play.

Russell the robot isn’t as complex as another human; it has some human characteristics, but it doesn’t over-stimulate or overwhelm a child dealing with autism spectrum disorders. It’s visually stimulating and engages their technological affinity without creating the added pressure of a regular human-to-human social interaction.

The learning environment they have created includes a room where the robot interacts with the children. This room is outfitted with cameras and a video gaming sensor that tracks and records the child’s movements. That information is sent wirelessly to the robot to provide real-time feedback, allowing the robot to gauge and understand how engaged the child is, how well the child is performing, and how well he or she is enjoying the activity.

In a blended learning approach, members of Sarkar’s team also interact with the children, leading them in exercises to encourage them to build their imitation skills. Interestingly, the children tend to be most responsive when interacting with the robot, while they pay minimal attention to the humans.

In addition to this robotic learning tool, Sarkar and Warren are also developing new learning tools to help children to feel more comfortable in real-life social situations. One such tool is an interactive computer game that teaches children to read and interpret facial expressions, which is an issue for many with autism.

Eventually, Sarkar hopes to see the day where children can have their own robot at home to help them navigate these learning tools.