Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from one child to the next, but in general, they fall into the three domains: (1) Social impairment (2) Communication difficulties and (3) Repetitive and stereotyped behaviours. Aiden, seen in the picture to the left, is a 3 year old boy who has ASD.
Given that the 2nd of April 2013 is World Autism Awareness Day, I thought that it would be appropriate to publish this post today.
Before getting down to the fascinating work of researchers at Vanderbilt University, lets get you introduced to NAO (pronounced 'now') the humanoid robot.
"NAO is the diminutive 'front man' for an elaborate system of cameras, sensors and computers designed specifically to help children like Aiden learn how to coordinate their attention with other people and objects in their environment. This basic social skill is called joint attention".
Typically developing children learn joint action naturally. However it is well documented that children with ASD have great difficulty mastering it and this inability can lead to an array of various learning difficulties as they grow older. Research published in March of this year by an interdisciplinary team at Vanderbilt University entitled "A step towards developing adaptive Robot mediated intervention architecture (ARIA) for children with autism" have proposed that robotic systems may be very effective tools for improving the basic social learning skills of children with ASD.
The researchers claim that robot technology has been shown to be quite appealing to children with ASD but that existing mediated systems are inclined to have limited 'adaptive capability' that can have an effect on individualization. In aiding to reverse such limitations, the researchers in this current project began by developing an adaptive and individualized robot-mediated technology for children with ASD. The system structure, called ARIA (Adaptive Robot-Mediated Intervention Architecture), uses the robot to give verbal prompts and gestures to the child to attract their attention. The researchers state that:
"The system is composed of a humanoid robot with its vision augmented by a network of cameras for real-time head tracking using a distributed architecture. Based on the cues from the child's head movement, the robot intelligently adapts itself in an individualized manner to generate prompts and reinforcements with potential to promote skills in the ASD core deficit area of early social orienting".
Based on a pilot usability study that included 6 children with ASD and a control group of 6 typically developing children, the researchers reported that the children with ASD spent considerably more time looking at the humanoid robot than did the typically developing children. Nilanjan Sarkar a professor at Vanderbilt and who was heavily involved in this research explains that children engage more with NAO compared to its human therapist counterpart because of less intimidation and anxiety - "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."
Zachary Warren who is director of the Treatment & Research Institute for ASD at Vanderbilt states that this research is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can have a major impact on autism. Because recent research suggested that children with ASD found robots appealing, the researchers knew they had to develop a sophisticated adaptive structure around the robot in order to make it work in improving the children's social skills. One of the key elements of ARIA is its closed loop design as the robot adapts its behaviour to each child automatically depending on how he or she is responding to it.
Seeing that ASD diagnosis is on the increase, NAO may well be a good alternative for ASD children to learn vital social skills while they wait to be seen by human therapists. More importantly, the researchers hope that robotic systems can act as an "accelerant technology" that actually increases the rate at which children with ASD learn the social skills that they need. The researchers state that the cost of robotic systems like this will continue to come down in the future so it should easily pay for itself by supplementing human intervention.
It will be very interesting to see what findings are to come in the future within this research domain and with robots as therapeutic aids in general. Below you will find a video showing Aiden and NAO in action.