CHIP Research: Robots May Help Children with Autism

RobotA robot delivers a karate chop or makes drumming motions and a child imitates the robot and delights in a novel playmate. But, if a child with autism imitates the robot, much more may occur.

Two CHIP researchers are studying whether a small robot with a big personality holds the potential to help children with autism improve both their motor and social-communication skills.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests interventions using robot-child interactions may enhance motor and social-communication skills of children with low- and high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), but there are very few clinical trials currently testing robot-child interactions as therapy for ASD,” CHIP Principal Investigator (PI) Anjana Bhat said.

Bhat, an assistant professor of kinesiology in the Neag School of Education, recently received a two-year, $404,639 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant to design a series of robot-child interactions that would help improve the gross motor skills and the imitative and turn-taking abilities of children with ASD. The second two-year phase of the project will include a clinical trial of the intervention with 20 children with ASD and 20 typically developing children between the ages of 4 and 8.

During her post-doctoral work in the field of autism, Bhat learned about the motor impairments of children with ASD, such as poor motor coordination, balance, and difficulty imitating complex movements. She became particularly interested in this area because research suggests impairments in these areas contribute to the social-communication impairments of children with ASD, she said.

Prior to applying for the NIMH grant, Bhat and her co-investigator, Timothy Gifford, director of both CHIP’s Advanced Interactive Technology Center (AITC) and the Ecological Robotics Lab at the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (CESPA) in UConn’s psychology department, conducted a pilot study using a 7-inch robot they bought off the shelf and programmed themselves.

For the NIMH grant, Bhat and Gifford have purchased a two-foot-tall robot named Nao using internal equipment grant funds from Aldebaran Robotics in France.

Nao introduces himself, extends his hand for a shake, announces that children like to play with him and takes a bow. Nao even performs elaborate Tai Chi routines with accompanying music, but, most importantly to the researchers, the robot can be programmed to incrementally increase the complexity of its routines – including single movement and continuous movement sequences – over time as the children progress through therapy.

Bhat and Gifford have begun using Nao in sessions with children in Bhat’s Infant and Child Development Laboratory on campus. As part of the first phase of the study, the researchers will have 5 children with ASD and 16 typically developing children interact individually with Nao during eight separate sessions. Each session will include four or five robot actions to imitate. 

“So far, our data suggest that robot-child interactions are a highly motivating context for children, those with and without autism. Children not only connect with the robot but also with the tester who controls the robot as they both share the novel experience together,” Bhat said.

“Children with ASD typically feel more comfortable with robots than with other people initially, because robot interactions are simpler and more predictable and the children are in control of the social interaction,” Bhat explained. “Robots also are fully-embodied beings that encourage children to engage in whole body interactions. Children with ASD typically enjoy playing with them and respond with imitative behavior often delayed during interactions with other people.”

Bhat said robots could initially serve as intermediaries between therapists and children with ASD, until a connection is made, and may help extend the reach of clinicians.

“Often children with ASD have intense therapy needs – often 30 to 40 hours per week – and a robot could perform some of the tasks typically performed by an untrained individual and could support the clinician by delivering more standardized interventions,” she said.

Eventually, Gifford explained, robotics systems will have the potential to collect video and kinematic data of a child’s fine and gross motor performance and may further reduce the human resources required to deliver intensive interventions and perform frequent assessments.

“The ultimate goal will be to extend the capabilities of therapists and bring this technology to the target population in a useful, affordable way,” he said. “Someday, perhaps robots could be used in a variety of settings, such as schools and homes, as well as clinicians’ offices.”

CHIP PI Kerry Marsh, an associate professor of psychology, and CHIP Affiliate and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology Deborah Fein are collaborators on this project.