Kaspar and Paro social robots

The Challenge:  Finding ways to support children with autism to develop social interaction and communication skills

For children on the autism spectrum, social interaction and communication can be significantly challenging. Approximately 83 per cent of the 164,000 Australians living with autism spectrum disorder are under 25 years old. Additional support is often needed to help these children gain the skills necessary to navigate the world independently.

Digital technology is often used as a supplement to traditional education as it provides an environment that allows for self-paced learning and immediate feedback. While considered generally safe and effective there are concerns that a child who is taught to communicate using interactive technology may become dependent on the virtual world and its rewards, while interpersonal skills are sacrificed or not generalised to real world settings. More research and new innovations are needed to improve technological support to education and therapy for children on the spectrum.

The Response:  Social robots as tools to support education and therapy for children with autism

Researchers at our Australian e-Health Research Centre are trialing four different social robots as tools to support therapy and education for children with autism: NAO, KASPAR (from the University of Hertsfordshire in England), Paro and Robotis. Trials using the robots are also underway in partnership with the University of New South Wales, Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT) and with Murray Bridge High School in South Australia.

Social robots are novel, animated and appear to be autonomous, setting themselves apart from other technology, and their physical 3D presence provides a compromise between the virtual world and the real world. Robots can provide complex behaviour patterns, while appearing much less intimidating than humans. They can also deliver predictable behaviours and repetitive feedback and they don’t get angry, tired or stressed. More than anything, robots provide a new environment where it is fun to learn.

The Results:  Ongoing trials suggest social robots are effective

Our trials are ongoing, but results so far suggest that social robots are effective tools to assist during therapy and education of children on the spectrum.

While robots have different abilities depending on their appearance and behaviour, participants are particularly enthusiastic about humanoid robots. According to participants, some of the benefits observed in students when they interacted with robots in the classroom are also transferring to interpersonal interactions.