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Social robots are helping kids with autism in ways that humans cannot

From Buddy the robot developed by the Blue Frog Robotics Team to the Development of Robot-Enhanced therapy for children with AutisM spectrum disorders (DREAM) by the University of Portsmouth, there are many programs aiming to develop robots to help children and adults with autism in ways that parents and experts are not able to.

Communication-focused activities are quite challenging for people with autism spectrum conditions as they see, hear and feel the world differently from others. It also affects the way they interact with others.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show a lack of interest and an inability to interact. They also have a limited ability to communicate, and show repetitive behaviours when they are faced with changes.

Social robots like Zeno or Kapstar have been designed specifically for children with special needs. These have been tested to improve social interaction skills in particular.

With the help of role-playing and set up situations, children are able to learn social interaction skills. This way children get to step out of their comfort-zone without the worry of exposing themselves to an unknown person.

There is also a certain comfort in reacting in front of a robot, which responds and reacts, and gives them the motivation not to let down the robot, unlike an inanimate object like a computer.

However, existing robots are unable to autonomously engage with children, which is needed to improve the therapy. People with autism have different ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings so to counter this, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States have created a personalised machine learning framework for robots used during autism therapy.

The framework helps robots automatically perceive the various behaviours and engagement patterns of children as they interact with them.

This model has been tested on 35 children from 3 to 13 years of age in Japan and Serbia during 35-minute sessions. The humanoid robots conveyed different emotions by changing the colour of their eyes, the tone of their voice and the position of their limbs.

The results of this most recent study as well as previous ones show that robots will have a critical role to play in autism therapy in future

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