Can a Friendly Robot Help Children with Autism?

Can a friendly robot help children with autism express their emotions and connect emotionally?  Researchers at the University of Denver are investigating whether robots can serve as a stepping stone to more meaningful human interaction.

An interdisciplinary faculty-student-robot research team at the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science is conducting a pilot study exploring whether humanoid robots can improve social and communication skills in children with ASD.

“Why a robot? Why not a human?” asks Mohammad Mahoor, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Humans are very overwhelming for kids with autism.”

Toys, especially those with technology, are often irresistible, however.  The remote-controlled social robot NAO can walk, talk and dance, as well as direct autistic children in activities designed to improve their recognition of facial expressions and help them cast their gaze appropriately. Using four microphones and two cameras, NAO records essential data about each study participant, including the duration and frequency of their direct gaze and the range of expressions. When kids succeed, NAO can enlist them in a celebratory high-five. 

The ongoing project studies two-dozen participants, age 7 to 17, who come to a University experiment room every two weeks for 30-minute sessions with the robot. Preliminary findings suggest NAO is helping some children maintain direct gaze for longer periods.

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University of Denver
Associate professor of electrical and computer engineering
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