Humanoid robots can be used the help autistic children develop social and life skills by practicing imitations of computer-demonstrated behavior, says a pilot study by the University of Southern California. Scientists hope that within a decade, autistic children might have personal robots who are able to prompt them during daily tasks, assist with therapy, coach them during social interactions, and encourage them to play with their peers.
Researchers presented the study ““Graded Cueing Feedback in Robot-Mediated Imitation Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” at the International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug. 27, 2014.
"There is a vast health care need that can be aided by intelligent machines capable of helping people of all ages to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises, and to learn social behaviors,” said Maja Matarić, USC Viterbi School of Engineering Vice Dean for Research and the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics.
"There’s so much that can be done that can complement human care as well as other emerging technologies.”
The humanoid robots provided graded cueing, an occupational therapy method that provides prompts or increasingly specific cues that help the people to learn new abilities or regain lost skills. A group of 12 high-functioning autistic children were divided into two subgroups, control and experimental. Every child played a game with the robot during which the child was asked to copy 25 different arm poses.
When the children in both groups copied the move correctly, the robot either nodded, flashed green eyes, or said “Good job!” When the child was not accurate, the robot repeated the same command for the control group. Children in the experimental group who did not imitate the pose correctly were offered various prompts from verbal clues to more detailed instructions and demonstrations of the pose.
Researchers observed that children who received the prompting showed maintained or improved performance, while the control group children either regressed or stayed the same. The results suggest that when the children were incorrect, varied feedback is less frustrating and more effective than repetitions of the same prompt.
“In this study we used graded cueing to develop the social skill of imitation through the copycat game,” said Jillian Greczek, who oversaw the study. “Our hope is that learning such skills could be generalized. So, if a child with autism is at recess with friends, and some kids are playing Red Light/Green Light, the child might look at the game and say, ‘Oh, I see how to play, and I can play with them too.”’