Could robots hold the key to helping children with autism?

Researchers at Vanderbilt University claim that a two foot tall robot named “Nao” could hold the key for helping treat thousands with autism spectrum disorder. A team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt created an extensive system of cameras, sensors, and computers, of which Nao serves as a “front-man.”

Such systems are intended to help children to focus their attention on both other people and objects in their environment. This fundamental social skill is called “joint attention” — the inability to master it is a hallmark of autism, and this can escalate to a variety of learning difficulties as children age.

Researchers decided that a robotic system held great potential in working with young children, and proceeded to build an “intelligent environment” around Nao, a commercial humanoid robot made in France. In this environment, the robot stands at a table facing the room. Flat panel displays are attached to the side walls; the child sits facing the front of the room, and is at eye-level with the robot. The room holds a number of web cameras aimed at the chair, which tracks the child’s head movements. To facilitate tracking, children in the study wore a baseball cap equipped with LED lights allowing the computer to see where they are looking.

Nao is programmed with a series of prompts, such as “look over here” accompanied by gestures, such as looking and pointing at one of the displays which imitate prompts and gestures used by human therapists in joint attention training. If the initial verbal prompt is ignored, then the therapist provides increased support by combining a verbal prompt with a physical gesture, then responding with praise if the child looks at the target.

The children’s engagement with the robot was highly promising, as evidenced by a number of test groups consisting of 2-to 5-year old children. It is stressed that the robotic system is not intended to replace human therapists, but to supplement their efforts. A robot could be highly useful in supplying the repeated practice efforts that are so critical to learning.