Can Robots Help Autistic Children?

Professor Nilanjan Sarkar of Vanderbilt University thinks emotion-sensing robots can help autistic children with their social skills. We also speak to Tonya Mirtes — her 16 year-old son, Daniel, took part in Prof. Sarkar's research. Mirtes is also a representative at the Autism Society of Middle Tenessee in Nashville.

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Dr. Sarkar's explanation for how the robot works:

A child with autism is asked to shoot nerf balls through the hoop that is connected to the robot. He/she is instructed to successfully shoot a certain number of hoops in a given time (e.g., 20 hoops in 90 seconds). The child wears several physiological sensors to measure his/her heart rate, skin sweating, and muscle twitching. The robot is capable of creating different game playing experience by moving the hoop at different speeds in different directions. For example, the robot can make the game difficult and frustrating by moving the hoop fast with an up-down motion. It can also make it easy for the child by slowing down the movement with a left-right motion.

Additionally, the robot plays different types of music when it moves the hoop. For example, it can play a soothing music to create a calming environment or it can play a rock music to create an upbeat environment. The idea here is to present different gaming experience for different children. The goal for the robot is to infer automatically which gaming experience a particular child likes most and present that experience to him so that he/she enjoys the game and stays engaged. The robot infers this information based on the physiological response of the children in real-time. The robot also gives vocal feedback to the children (e.g., you are doing great!).

This prototype experiment demonstrates the fact that it is possible to automatically infer the underlying feeling of children with autism given a particular activity and then modify the activity to make it enjoyable to the children. If only they are interested in an activity one can teach them some skills. Thus we anticipate that a robot can play an important role in teaching skills to these children by presenting tasks to them that they enjoy and then incrementally introduce new elements to the task to scaffold their skills.

This program aired on March 31, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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