Robot Speaks the Language of Kids

Aug 05, 2010 By Beth Krane
Aiden, a staff member's child who does not have autism, interacts with the robot. Photo by Sheila Perretta

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers are studying whether a small robot with a big personality holds the potential to help children with autism.

A robot delivers a karate chop or makes drumming motions and a child imitates the robot, taking delight in a novel playmate. But if a child with autism imitates the robot, much more than that may occur.

Two researchers with the Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP) at the University of Connecticut are studying whether a small robot with a big personality holds the potential to help with autism improve both their motor and their social communication skills.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests interventions using robot-child interactions may enhance motor and social communication skills of children with low- and high-functioning (ASD), but there are very few clinical trials currently testing robot-child interactions as therapy for ASD,” says Anjana Bhat, a principal investigator with CHIP.

Bhat, an assistant professor of in the Neag School of Education, recently received a two-year, $404,639 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to design a series of robot-child interactions that would help improve the gross motor skills and the imitative and turn-taking abilities of children with ASD. The second two-year phase of the project will include a clinical trial of the intervention with 20 children with ASD and 20 typically developing children between the ages of four and eight.

During her post-doctoral work in the field of autism, Bhat learned about the motor impairments of children with ASD, such as poor motor coordination, balance, and difficulty imitating complex movements. She became particularly interested in this area because research suggests impairments in these areas contribute to the social-communication impairments of children with ASD.

Before applying for the NIMH grant, Bhat and her co-investigator, Timothy Gifford, director of CHIP’s Advanced Interactive Technology Center and a robotics lab in UConn’s psychology department, conducted a pilot study using a seven-inch robot they bought off the shelf and programmed themselves.

For the federally funded project, Bhat and Gifford have purchased a two-foot-tall robot named Nao from Aldebaran Robotics in France, using internal equipment grant funds.

Nao introduces himself, extends his hand for a shake, announces that children like to play with him, and takes a bow. Nao even performs elaborate Tai Chi routines with accompanying music. But, most importantly for the researchers, the robot can be programmed to incrementally increase the complexity of its routines over time, as the children progress through therapy.

Bhat and Gifford have begun using Nao in sessions with children in Bhat’s Infant and Child Development Laboratory on campus. As part of the first phase of the study, the researchers will have five children with ASD and 16 typically developing children interact individually with Nao during eight separate sessions. Each session will include four or five robot actions to imitate.

“So far, our data suggest that robot-child interactions are a highly motivating context for children, those with and without ,” Bhat says. “Children not only connect with the robot but also with the tester who controls the robot, as they both share the novel experience together.”

Bhat says that children with ASD typically feel more comfortable with robots than with other people initially, because robot interactions are simpler and more predictable and the children are in control of the social interaction. “Robots also are fully-embodied beings that encourage children to engage in whole body interactions,” she adds. “Children with ASD typically enjoy playing with them, and respond with imitative behavior often delayed during interactions with other people.”

Bhat says robots could initially serve as intermediaries between therapists and children with ASD, until a connection is made, and may help extend the reach of clinicians. “Often children with ASD have intense therapy needs - often 30 to 40 hours per week - and a could perform some of the tasks typically performed by an untrained individual and could support the clinician by delivering more standardized interventions,” she says.

Gifford says that eventually, robotics systems will have the potential to collect video and kinematic data of a child’s fine and gross motor performance and may further reduce the human resources required to deliver intensive interventions and perform frequent assessments.

“The ultimate goal will be to extend the capabilities of therapists and bring this technology to the target population in a useful, affordable way,” he says. “Someday perhaps, robots could be used in a variety of settings, such as schools and homes, as well as clinicians’ offices.”

Kerry Marsh, an associate professor of psychology and PI with CHIP, and Deborah Fein, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology and CHIP affiliate, are collaborators on this project.

Explore further: Three weeks since last Ebola case in Mali: WHO

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Robots to help children to form relationships

May 29, 2007

A project which is using robots to help children with developmental or cognitive impairments to interact more effectively has just started at the University of Hertfordshire.

Children with autistic traits remain undiagnosed

Mar 22, 2010

There has been a major increase in the incidence of autism over the last twenty years. While people have differing opinions as to why this is (environment, vaccines, mother's age, better diagnostic practice, more awareness ...

Study estimates one in 91 individuals have autism

Nov 04, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders marked by impaired social interactions, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, and communication impairment, which persist throughout ...

Robots that monitor emotions of ASD children

Feb 17, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The day that robot playmates help children with autism learn the social skills that they naturally lack has come a step closer with the development of a system that allows a robot to monitor ...

Recommended for you

New hope for rare disease drug development

3 hours ago

Using combinations of well-known approved drugs has for the first time been shown to be potentially safe in treating a rare disease, according to the results of a clinical trial published in the open access Orphanet Journal of ...

Three weeks since last Ebola case in Mali: WHO

6 hours ago

Mali has not had a case of Ebola for three weeks, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, completing one of the two incubation periods the country needs to be declared free of the virus.

Migraine may double risk for facial paralysis

6 hours ago

Migraine headache may double the risk of a nervous system condition that causes facial paralysis, called Bell's palsy, according to a new study published in the December 17, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journa ...

Anti-diabetic drug springs new hope for tuberculosis patients

13 hours ago

A more effective treatment for tuberculosis (TB) could soon be available as scientists have discovered that Metformin (MET), a drug for treating diabetes, can also be used to boost the efficacy of TB medication without inducing ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.