Can robots be used in autism therapy?

Robots have a way of capturing a child's imagination. They may be much more than just a cool toy, though. Aside from the possible educational benefits, researchers are testing how robots can be used to help children develop social and communication skills. Specifically studies are being conducted to test how children with autism can benefit from interacting with robots.

The Robotics Research Lab at USC have been working on robots that will resonate with kids with autism. While these children may have difficulty reading human emotion and catching social cues, their endearing robots have been able to capture the attention and sometimes even empathy of hard-to-reach children.

Several of my friends' children have autistic spectrum tendencies, so I am happy to hear research is being done to help these children learn to interact in a way that is enjoyable for them. "Robots are simpler than people," says Maja Mataric, co-director of the Robotics Research Lab. "There is something about machines that really seems to resonate with many kids with autism."

Robots can be used to interact and reach kids in a way a parent or therapist may not. After gaining a child's attention, the robot can instruct a child to imitate its movements through speech clues, visual clues or movement. Since robots can be programmed to react in a particular way; the researchers can control the actions and alter it to mimic a child's preferred style of interaction .

Bandit is the name of the robot used at the USC lab since 2007. It has human-like features but is very much a machine. Mataric and her colleagues were looking to find the delicate balance between a robot and a human. The concern was that if it looked too much like a robot kids would not try to make friends. On the other hand, if it was too realistic, it could intimidate kids with autism spectrum disorders. This blend has a pleasant look with archable eyebrows and camera eyes that can "watch" the kids that come to play. The sensors are set so proximity to the kids can be maintained, and the robot has motor-driven arms so Bandit can mimic motions. Interactions with Bandit have inspired some children in the study to smile socially for the first time. This alone shows serious potential for the ability of robots to reach those with autism.

Mataric hopes that with more research and enough funding, robots like Bandit can be used in homes to help children continue to progress with their social skills. These 'bots just might help kids with autistic related tendencies learn to engage with others. Zachary Warren, the director of the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders and professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, agrees that there is real promise in using a robotic-based approach, and hopes that machines can help "bridge the gap" between children with autism and the outside world.


Los Angeles Times

Popular Science: The New Face of Autism Therapy

More by Sylvie Branch:

Anger management for kids

7 Things to remember about saying I love you.

Tips for reinforcing good behavior