Robots could help people with autism

A story in this week’s Washington Post describes a new generation of service robots that can provide therapy, coaching and monitoring for people with disabilities. Among the early successes of these “socially assistive machines” are robots that might help children with autism. The story says that researchers first need to determine what these socially assistive robots can do for children with autism, and then also consider how the machines should look. 

Machines that are almost, but not quite, like a person are worse than those that are either completely humanlike or a bit further away,” Simmons says. 

That’s particularly true of robots designed to work with children with autism, who want something decidedly machinelike. Kaspar, for example, a diminutive robot being tested with children with autism in the United Kingdom, has a minimally expressive face and wires sticking out of its neck and wrists to make it clear to the kids that they’re playing with a robot. “We tested another robot that looked like a doll with eyelashes and color on its lips, and the children didn’t like that one as much at first,” says Dautenhahn, who headed the team that created Kaspar. 

Certainly no one would mistake CosmoBot, a 16-inch-tall robot designed by AnthroTronix, an engineering company in Silver Spring, for a person. And that seems to suit Libby, a 6-year-old with autism, just fine. Before being introduced to CosmoBot, Libby couldn’t imitate even the most basic actions. But after several weeks of playing with the robot, she was mirroring its motions as it led her through a Simon-says game of raising her arms, patting her head and clapping. 

“Her mother and the professionals who saw this were in tears,” says Carole Samango-Sprouse, director of the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children at George Washington University. “It was incredibly encouraging that the robot, through repetition and predictable behavior, was successful in getting her to perform the motions she had seen adults doing for years.”


The story ends with a conclusion we hear again and again about opportunities (health insurance, education, funding) for people with autism. Children and the elderly get attention, but what about  working-age adults?

“Older children who are autistic or in wheelchairs grow up to be adults with those disabilities. I’m waiting for others to identify those needs so we can analyze how robots can help.”



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