Humanoid Robot Designed for Autistic Children, Success Already Noticeable!

Aldebaran Robotics has announced their Autism Solution for Kids initiative: ASK NAO. Aldebaran is among world leaders in humanoid robotics design and believes their newest addition to the robot family, NAO, is the “perfect bridge between human and technological worlds” for autistic children, whom often find communication easier with regimented structure that computer-based programs provide. At 2-feet tall, NAO is child-sized, and surprisingly full of personality. “He” can make a good companion, developing social skills and furthering education through games.  Aldebaran intends for NAO to be used as a teaching assistant in special needs classrooms. The robot is able to lead and participate in a variety of educational games aimed at developing verbal skills, non-verbal communication, emotional intelligence, and elementary academic skills. ASK NAO has been tested in three schools, one in England and two in the United States. The Moody Preschool in Massachusetts requested to beta test the program and reported that NAO was useful for inclusion classrooms, providing a social mediator that both typically developing children and those on the autism spectrum found engaging and exciting. The staff observed positive changes in attention span among the autistic kids in just a few weeks. One teacher asserted, “Some students who barely react to people had a great reaction to the robot.” Head teacher of the special needs program at Topcliffe Primary in Birmingham, England explained an aspect of NAO’s success with his students, saying “The robots have no emotion, so autistic children find them less threatening than their teachers and easier to engage with. Children who first come into school unable to make eye contact with humans start to communicate through the robots.” Topcliffe Primary has had two robots for over a year—Ben & Max. You can see a video of Topcliffe’s success with ASK NAO in this news feature.

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Gee, Sue. “NAO Works With Autistic Children.” NAO Works With Autistic Children. N.p., 5 May 2013. Web. 07 May 2013. <>.

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.