Autism is a developmental disability that affects communication and social skills. As the rate of diagnosed cases of autism continues to rise, researchers are searching for ways to help people afflicted by this complex disability. Since many children with autism are naturally attracted to computers and technology, it follows that offering a product combining technology with human characteristics may be a way to bridge the gap. Early research on the effectiveness of using robots to teach social skills is promising, and several companies are working on models that can help children with autism.
KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics) is a remote-controlled robot with simplified human features developed by the scientists at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. KASPAR’s face is not as expressive as that of a real human, which makes him more approachable to children with autism. KASPAR responds to verbal interactions and physical touch, giving children feedback on appropriate social interactions. There are currently only 3 KASPAR prototypes, but the University of Hertfordshire is raising funds to create and distribute more to schools.
NAO is a two-foot tall humanoid robot with 25 joints created by Aldebaran Robotics in Paris, France. NAO moves fluidly, uses gestures and words to communicate, and even has a chest that moves to simulate breathing. NAO also uses facial recognition skills, and can become attached to familiar people, thus developing a relationship with the child. NAO also has the ability to recall previous experiences and interpret them as positive or negative. Over 2,000 NAO robots have been sold to schools and therapy centers around the world.
The Hanson Robokind Wonderbot is a miniature humanoid robot created by Hanson Robotics in Dallas, Texas. It has patented Frubber™ skin material and more than 32 facial muscles, which allow the robot to display an impressive range of realistic facial expressions. It also comes with fully-functioning joints and body movements, to allow a full range of communicative facial expressions and gestures. It is available in a male and female version.
My Keepon is a small, yellow robot that is not as humanoid as the others, but it is mass-produced and affordable. It has a simple design with a face that consists of googly eyes and a round black nose. Unlike the other humanoid robots, My Keepon does not speak or simulate facial expressions or gestures. It does, however, dance, and respond to touch. Preliminary research found that children with autism made more eye contact with the robot, and that nurturing behaviors such as touching and smiling were reported. My Keepon is available at Amazon.com, Toys R Us, and other major toy retailers.
The use of robots in treating autism is still in development, and clearly most of the prototypes available are too expensive for the average family. However, the My Keepon is a start, and companies like Hanson Robotics are working on developing affordable models that can be mass produced to families and schools around the world.