Robots help teach social skills to children

by Ben Porter
The robot can sense when a child begins to get frustrated or agitated and can react accordingly.

(Medical Xpress)—Robots and humans socialize frequently in pop fiction—think of Wall-E and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, a UT Dallas researcher is giving the fantasy of robotic friends a practical edge with a robot that teaches social skills to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Dr. Pamela Rollins, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, explained that individuals with ASD often have social anxiety. Learning social interactions via a less threatening interface—a robot—may help patients better identify emotions and use specific with humans, like holding a conversation.

"Some preliminary data has shown that individuals with start talking to the robots when they don't talk to other people," Rollins said.

Rollins, who conducts research at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, is working with a team of autism experts and robotics designers at the company Robokind to create Robots4Autism. This program uses an artificially intelligent robot with a full range of facial expressions to interact with children who have ASD.

According to autism advocacy group Autism Speaks, as children with ASD develop, they may have varying degrees of difficulties in engaging in normal social situations. Although they may share a connection with a person, such as a parent, they don't show the normal behaviors that would demonstrate this affection, like hugging or smiling at them. This difficulty in demonstrating accepted social norms can continue into their adult lives.

When used in conjunction with traditional therapies, Robots4Autism may improve social behaviors and interactions for children with ASD.

"It's not to replace therapy with humans, but you can deliver a social skills lesson in a less threatening way, and the robot can deliver the same lesson multiple times," Rollins said.

During a lesson, the robot explains a social situation to the child with ASD. They then watch a video of the described social situation together, during which the robot comments on the appropriate behaviors displayed by the actors, reinforcing the previous explanation. As a final test, the child watches short videos of the correctly modeled behavior or one with errors, and then discusses.

The robot can sense when a child begins to get frustrated or agitated and can react accordingly. There is even a module designed to teach children how to calm themselves down when they're agitated. It can also progress children through lessons as they master modules focusing on different social situations, such as how to greet someone or how to interact at a birthday party.

Rollins said the next step is to begin testing the effectiveness of Robots4Autism after the final programming is finished in June.

UT Dallas alumna and speech language pathologist Michelle N. McFarlin and Dr. Carolyn Garver, program director of the Autism Treatment Center, are working with Rollins to develop the curriculum for Robots4Autism. Rollins is a gubernatorial appointee to the Texas Council on Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Humanoid robot "Russell" engages children with autism

Nov 19, 2013

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), mechanical and computer engineer Nilanjan Sarkar and psychologist Zachary Warren of Vanderbilt University have developed a learning environment for ...

Recommended for you

Planning a better future for people with autism

13 hours ago

In the world of special education, transition is the move from school to adult life. For most of us that move can be awkward, but for people with disabilities—particularly autism—it is especially complex.

Are three brain imaging techniques better than one?

Aug 22, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Many recent imaging studies have shown that in children with autism, different parts of the brain do not connect with each other in typical ways. Initially, most researchers thought that ...

Adults with autism at higher risk of sexual victimization

Aug 14, 2014

Adults with autism are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than adults without, due to lack of sex education, but with improved interventions that focus on sexual knowledge and skill building, the risk could be reduced, ...

Autism rates steady for two decades

Aug 14, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A University of Queensland study has found no evidence of an increase in autism in the past 20 years, countering reports that the rates of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are on the rise.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 29, 2014
Apart from the robots, there are a lot of things that can help teach social skills to children.
Now, the biggest question for every parent: Are Video Games good for children?
I won't answer this, I will just tell you that I found one EXTREMELY GOOD AND USEFUL article, that made me clear my mind.
I showed it to my wife, she liked it too.
If you min read the post, here is the link: http://www.kidsar...hildren/
(I don't like the spelling of the post at all, but it is worth reading)
Enjoy! :)