Autism, Medical Consultation, Technology, Vocational Rehabilitation

Autistic Children Thrive Thanks to Interactive Robot

 October 24, 2018

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have difficulty interacting with humans, but what about robots? Let’s face it. It’s a perfectly valid question in 2020. If you are a caregiver with limited time, resources and money for therapy, improving social skills such as eye contact, body language, and tone of voice can be overwhelming. Robots, and games with automated feedback, have proven helpful in changing the behavior of autistic children.

Brian Scassellati, a robotics expert and cognitive scientist at Yale University, arranged a study that shows that, by spending 30 days with an in-home robot, children with ASD are showing significant, long-lasting improvements. They are picking up on social cues, making sustained eye contact and overall improving their person-to-person interaction.

Scassellati and his team provided 12 families with a tablet computer loaded with social games. Their new companion, a commercially sold robot called Jibo, was programmed to follow along with the games and provide feedback. For 30 days, parents spent 30 minutes each day with their children while Jibo played games with them. The basis for these games was clinical therapy techniques for improving different social skills, including social and emotional understanding, seeing things from another’s perspective, and completing tasks in a sequence.

Jibo model’s good social behavior. During the study, it would focus its eyes on the child or the caretaker. It would orient its body toward them and ask the child to do the same. The robot would sometimes call the child by his or her name, which would cue the child to look at the caregiver. The difficulty of the games would increase based on the child’s performance.

Everyone had a role to play. While caregivers scored children on their behavior, researchers filmed the sessions. They looked for changes in body language and social cues among the children. The final test conducted by the researchers measured the children’s ability to alert another to an object by means of eye gazing, pointing or verbal description. This ability is known as joint attention. The test occurred 30 days before the experiment, on the first day of the games, on the last day of the games, and again 30 days after the study was over.

Science Robotics magazine showed that the social skills of all 12 children improved over the course of the study.  Their joint attention scores, while with the robot, increased by 33% before dropping slightly 30 days after the study ended. This was not a failure of the robot but merely a sign that 30 days was not enough for a permanent change.

Response to communication, initiating more conversations, and increased eye contact were all observable results of this study. However, long-term, lasting social change still eludes experts. According to Scassellati, more work is needed to test the effectiveness of the robots with larger groups of children over longer periods of time. Traditional treatments and therapy will never be replaced. The idea of the robot is for it to serve as a constant companion and resource.

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