With the rising rate of autism diagnoses, the need for quality therapeutic interventions for autistic children grows every day. 

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration recently released statistics showing that , a much higher rate than one in 88, as previously reported by the Centers for Disease Control.

Behavioral intervention is normally the first line of treatment to help an autistic child learn to socialize. Resent research has shown that even the simple presence of an animal in the room can help autistic children better interact with their peers.

Now, researchers at Vanderbilt University are finding that a robot may help autistic kids learn to direct their attention and respond to their therapists.

How NAO Can Help Autistic Kids

Two-foot tall robot NAO is the star of a new treatment program being developed at Vanderbilt’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD).

NAO—pronounced “now”—uses a series of cameras and sensors to interact with an autistic child in order to enhance basic social skills. He’s the brainchild of Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical engineering and computer engineering at Vanderbilt.

When he visited his cousin’s autistic son in India six years ago, Sarkar realized that his work teaching robots to respond to human commands could do wonders for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). After all, previous research has shown that autistic children respond well to robots.            

“After I learned something about autism, it occurred to me that my research could be valuable for treating ASD,” Sarkar said. “We knew that this gave us an advantage, but we had to figure out how to leverage it to improve the children's social skills.” 

Along with a team of engineers and pediatricians, researchers built an “intelligent environment” around a commercial humanoid robot made in France by Aldebaran Robotics. They programmed the robot with a series of verbal prompts, cues, and gestures to help it interact with a child in the exam room.

NAO does this using inexpensive web cameras, sensors, and LED lights to track the child’s movements. For instance, if the robot points and tells the child to look in a certain direction, sensors attached to a baseball cap on the child's head can track his or her head movement. NAO can respond appropriately, with praise if the child follows its direction and further encouragement if not.

See Vanderbilt’s video of NAO in therapy with a child.

Introducing NAO to Children

To test NAO’s effectiveness, researchers integrated the robot into training sessions with a human therapist for 12 two- to five-year-old children, half of whom had autism. Researchers found that the children were more engaged with the robot than the human therapist. In joint sessions, autistic children spent more time looking at the robot. 

“The children's engagement with the robot was excellent,” Julie Crittendon, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said in a press release, “and we saw improvements across the board in both groups.”

Their research was published in the latest issue of IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering

The Vanderbilt research team says the robot is in no way meant to replace the personal touch of a human therapist, but robots can help with the repetitive practice essential to learning.

The researchers are currently developing robot-assisted programs to help with other aspects of autism, including imitation learning, role playing, and sharing.

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