“Aiden, look!” piped NAO, a two-foot tall humanoid robot, as it pointed to a flat-panel display on a far wall. As the cartoon dog Scooby Doo flashed on the screen, Aiden, a young boy with an unruly thatch of straw-colored hair, looked in the direction the robot was pointing.
Aiden, who is three and a half years old, has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). NAO (pronounced “now”) 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 it naturally. Children with autism, however, have difficulty mastering it and that inability can compound into a variety of learning difficulties as they age.
An interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt University have developed the system and used it to demonstrate that robotic systems may be powerful tools for enhancing the basic social learning skills of children with ASD. Writing in the March issue of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, the researchers report that children with ASD paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions almost as well as they did those of a human therapist in standard exercises used to develop joint attention skill.
The finding indicates that robots could play a crucial role in responding to the “public health emergency” that has been created by the rapid growth in the number of children being diagnosed with ASD. Today, one in 88 children (one in 54 boys) are being diagnosed with ASD. That is a 78 percent increase in just four years. The trend has major implications for the nation’s healthcare budget because estimates of the lifetime cost of treating ASD patients ranges from four to six times greater than for patients without autism.
“This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism,” said team member Zachary Warren, who directs the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center.