Kids with autism or Asperger’s often struggle with social interaction, which can make conventional classroom learning extremely challenging and sometimes not terribly effective. Since many kids on the autism spectrum find technology easier and more fruitful to interact with than other people, scientists and engineers are developing robots, hardware, and programs that help autistic kids learn difficult social skills.
Since classrooms full of other kids often prove to be overstimulating and even upsetting for children on the autistic spectrum, leveraging their affinity for technology seems like a smart approach. Vanderbilt University scientists have created Russell, a humanoid robot designed to help autistic children learn to mimic behavior. Because kids with autism “tend to understand the physical world much better than the social world,” according to the project’s computer and mechanical engineer Nilanjan Sarkar, Russell is an ideal learning tool. While it demonstrates some human characteristics, it isn’t anywhere near as complicated as another person; thus, it’s far less likely to overwhelm kids, and it won’t judge, get frustrated, or respond emotionally to the interactions. Robotics are also perfectly consistent and modifiable.
The Vanderbilt scientists have created a classroom outfitted with cameras and Microsoft Kinect sensors that tracks the movement of the learners and then sends the information via Wi-Fi to Russell. With that information, Russell can discern the child’s level of engagement and performance. The main social skill Russell helps kids hone is that of imitating others. Autistic children have trouble identifying facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal cues crucial to appropriate socializing. If they see a robot perform some of these gestures, they can learn to better identify them, as well as learn how to make those same gestures themselves.
The scientists at Vanderbilt blend human instruction with Russell to acclimatize the kids to means of instruction and to compare their responses to human teachers and robotic ones. Unsurprisingly, the students paid little attention to the humans and were more responsive to the robots. The scientists will continue developing new tools to enhance social skills, particularly when it comes to identifying and recognizing facial expressions.
Therapists at the National University of Singapore use social robots with autistic children and have also found them to be effective, especially at very young ages. Recent research indicates that lack of sustained eye contact in babies is a possible indicator of autism. Thus, robots with eye cameras are better equipped to monitor infant eye contact, which could facilitate an early diagnosis. While autism is a developmental disorder that doesn’t go away with age, early diagnosis and intervention can help children develop skills and coping mechanisms that will help them throughout their lives.
Complex humanoid robots such as FACE (Facial Automation for Conveying Emotions), developed by University of Pisa engineers, are capable of making and mirroring dozens of facial expressions, and many of these robots also monitor and record children’s behavior and responses for later review. Software for computers and mobile devices, such as Model Me Kids and Vizzle also provide ways to engage and teach autistic children.
These advances are improving the way we address the needs of autistic children, while at the same time facilitating their connection with technology, which could prove quite useful as they grow up. And hey, who doesn’t want to play with robots? This seems like a win-win situation all around.