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Can a robot help kids with autism improve interactive skills?

June 10, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Parents cherish bedtime stories and games with their little ones, but some children with autism can't always focus during that bedtime ritual. But now researchers find that robots can help by playing a role in helping kids learn how to pay attention and develop other crucial skills.

With glowing eyes and a high-tech voice, this robot grabs the attention of Robbie Pruitt.

Robbie has autism. Researchers at Vanderbilt University are using the robot to teach him how to focus on people and objects in his environment.

"Try to get a kid to clean up when you can't get them to pay attention to what's on the floor," said Robbie's mother, Sabrina Pruitt. "It's difficult."

Autism researcher and clinical psychologist Dr. Zachary Warren says kids with autism seem to be drawn to technology, so robots could be key in teaching social interaction.

"Children with autism are spending much more time looking at the robot than they would be at a human counterpart," said Warren.

The robot directs Robbie to look at a wall monitor. Smart sensors detect that Robbie followed the prompt, so he is rewarded with a video. The robot also directs Robbie's gaze by pointing.

"We've seen that the children are responding very accurately to the robotic prompt," said Warren.

Tiring work, but Robbie's parents say his interaction skills are improving.

In a study published this year, researchers found that children with autism paid more attention to the robot than the human therapist, and followed its instructions almost as well.

Researchers say they hope to study whether robots are a cost-effective way to accelerate other learning skills as well.