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NAO Robot Could be the Key in Training Children with Autism

Aiden with NAO

It is a widely known fact that robots have certain effects on the attention of children. So now, a humanoid robot called NAO is being tested to help children with autism develop their social communication skills in a more entertaining, easier and faster manner.

Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical engineering and computer engineering at the Vanderbilt University, and Zachary Warren, director at the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), led the research of a sophisticated adaptive structure to make the robot attuned to a child’s needs.

Their team, composed of mechanical engineers and people who are experts in children with autism, developed the system and demonstrated how powerful robots can be in enhancing the social skills of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

In a study, the researchers divided the children (aged two to five) into two groups: the first one includes children with ASD while the other one is composed of typically developing children. Both of the groups went under a joint attention training from a human therapist and from a robot-based system.

The results found out that both groups are more interested with the robot than with the human therapist. The group of children with ASD tend to divert their attention to other things than the typical developing kids during the human-led sessions. However, during the robot-led sessions, both groups spent an equal amount of time looking at the robot.

According to the researchers, NAO can adapt to a specific child’s need. This means that there is no single program that dictates how the robot interacts with a child with autism. The robot can adapt to what a particular child demands from a companion.

Since the robot is made of biosensors and analyzing variations of blood pressure levels and skin response, it can also evaluate the child’s emotional state. This allows the robots to adjust depending on the child’s mood and behavior.

NAO Not Replacing Human Therapists

The researchers were quick to point out that their study will not be alienating human interaction. The largest part of children’s development still centers on how well they can interact with humans. The robot is an “accelerant technology” that can increase the rate that children with autism can learn in the basic social skills they need.

It can also be viewed as an assistant to the human therapist. Because there is a shortage of therapists focusing on helping children with ASD, the robots can take part in conducting social skills exercises when a therapist is in another appointment.

Then, of course, there is also the matter of addressing the high cost of medical care that ASD requires. The lifetime treatment cost of patients with ASD is four to six times higher than those without it. This means that once this robot becomes a norm in the health care system, it can also lower the expenses of the public health system.

Sarkar said that soon enough, the cost of robots like NAO will be affordable for hospitals and government agencies. When that time comes, robot-based systems will be able to prove just how efficient they can be in helping children with ASD.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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