October 25, 2016

Picture provided by Romibo

It is a known fact that children with autism do not develop social reciprocity with the same ease as their typically-developing peers. One of the main obstacles is the complex and subtle nature of human social cues. Children with autism tend to be literal thinkers who are comfortable with routine and sameness, and social interaction can be unpredictable and difficult to understand.
What if we could simplify social cues, and present them to children with autism in a form that is more predictable and interesting to them?

Several researchers have developed robots that are able to simulate human facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. These robots can be controlled though apps or computer programs configured by parents or therapists. The research shows that children with autism are responding well to these robots, and that they are making gains in their social development. The downside? Cost – most of these robots are in the $30,000 and up range, making them out of reach for most families and school districts.

Picture provided by Romibo
Picture provided by Romibo

Until now. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University have developed a robot called Romibo (Row-mee-bow), an interactive, customizable robot that can play a variety of games designed to teach basic academic and social skills. Romibo has a plastic head and base with wheels that allow it to move freely. It responds to voices, touch, and can follow light. It’s appearance can be customized by changing the color of the shell, or by adding a fuzzy covering that gives it the look of a fluffy stuffed animal. Its voice, eyes, and movements can also be adjusted. This adaptability would allow a therapist or teacher to change the appearance of Romibo to appeal to many different children, without having to invest in another robot.

Romibo plays several games, including I-Spy, Tell me a Story, and Simon Says. These games are designed to teach children basic academic and social skills. A parent or therapist can configure Romibo to play a certain game, or to interact with the child in a specific manner through an I-Pad app. Researchers are working on developing an app for Android systems, and on developing more games and activities to foster social and academic development.

Aubrey and Ian with Romibo
Aubrey and Ian with Romibo

The I-Pad app also allows the user to control what Romibo says. Speech therapists and parents can configure Romibo to repeat words or phrases they are teaching their child. Romibo has also been used as an adaptive communication device for non-verbal children, who can configure the robot to speak for them.

Aubrey Shick, director of the Romibo project, hopes to have the product available to purchase by next year. It is currently being tested in research studies at Georgia Tech and several other universities, and the results are promising. The final product should retail in the $200-$300 price range, which makes it more affordable than any other robot prototypes currently being tested.

The project is currently seeking investors to fund the commercial production of Romibo. For more information, visit their website at www.romibo.org.

About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog www.remediatingautism.blogspot.com. She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. You can also follow her on https://twitter.com/speaking_autism and https://www.facebook.com/speaking.autism.ca

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