Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can face difficulties developing basic social learning skills. One research team at Vanderbilt University thinks they’ve found just the teaching tool to help — a two foot tall human-looking robot called NAO.
In this newly developed system called ARIA (Adaptive Robot-Mediated Intervention Architecture), the programmable NAO robot is connected with computers and inexpensive web cameras in order to track the movement of the child, discern the focus of the child’s attention and interact with the child through verbal prompts and physical gestures.
Researchers found that children paid more attention to NAO and followed the robot almost as well as a human adult therapist. Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt, attributed this success to the idea that children experience less anxiety when working with a robot than with a human therapist.
“Children experience anxiety dealing with people because they think they have to live up to expectations. Here, they know the robot doesn’t expect anything and so they’re not intimated by demands, whereas a human therapist may get annoyed or impatient.” -Nilanjan Sarkar, Mechanical Engineering, Vanderbilt University
NAO, pronounced “now”, interacts with the child by introducing songs and videos on screens around the room aimed at piquing the child’s interest. If the child pays attention to this stimulus, NAO responds with encouragement such as “good job.” If the child is not responsive, NAO uses verbal prompts such as “look over here” and “let’s do some more,” to direct the child’s focus, eventually adding physical gestures such as turning its head or pointing to lend emphasis to its prompts.
NAO is just one of a number of robots which have been enlisted to help children with autism hone their social skills. While Keepon, a much simpler robot, doesn’t have the dance moves that NAO does, it is also playing an important role in helping researchers better understand childhood communication. These robots and others could be the key to providing support for recently diagnosed children, as Sarkar told Mashable, “Some children are diagnosed but there’s no immediate therapist available. If [NAO] proves effective, it can be used at home or along with a therapist so they can monitor multiple children during a session.”
Capturing and holding a child’s attention can be a trying endeavor, even more so when that child has ASD. The fact that children pay attention to NAO is an advantageous breakthrough; alas, if only NAO could play Ace of Spades, it’d have my attention as well. Check out the video below to see NAO in action.