Robot Aids in Therapy for Autistic Children

Updated May 1, 2013, 12:03 p.m. ET

Robot Aids in Therapy for Autistic Children

By SHIRLEY S. WANG

SAN SEBASTIÁN, Spain—A two-foot-tall robot therapist may help children with autism learn to be more social, according to intriguing findings from a study being presented this week at the annual conference of the International Society for Autism Research here.

Results from the new study of 19 children with autism—thought to be the largest trial to date of such technology—found that kids improved their conversation skills more when interacting with the robot, compared with sessions with a human therapist alone. Parents reported these children had greater improvement at home as well.

Researchers long have been interested in using technology to help treat autism, a developmental condition characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior, because many of these children seem particularly interested in computers, iPads and other devices—often more so than they are interested in people.The robot used in the study, which cost $14,000 and is nicknamed Kelly, looks like a fancy toy but can be programmed by researchers to “talk,” engage the child in conversation and respond to novel questions. In six sessions, the child was simultaneously coached by a therapist on specific skills when interacting with the robot, such as making eye contact or taking turns talking. Six other sessions included only a human therapist.

The thinking is that children with autism often struggle with the complexity of social behavior, so they may more easily learn such skills in the simplified interchange with robots. In addition, they may be more motivated to interact with a robot, said Joshua Diehl, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame who will present the data Saturday.

The goal is to use technology to promote social behavior, not just to have the child engage with the device, said Dr. Diehl, who has no ties with the robot maker.

“If you’re interacting with the robot while you’re interacting with somebody else, then it’s promoting social behavior,” said Dr. Diehl. “If you’re interacting by yourself, you’re just playing with a toy, a very, very expensive toy.”

Liam McGuire, 11, one of the children in the study, immediately connected with Kelly the robot. He was motivated to learn how to talk with it in a way he hadn’t been with people, said his mother, Laura McGuire. “He wanted to communicate with that robot, and he wanted it to communicate with him,” she said.

Liam said practicing the skills with Kelly was difficult. “You have to look directly at them,” he said. “You just don’t know what to say to them.”

The boy made visible gains in the sessions themselves as well as at home, said Dr. McGuire, a physician who currently is a stay-at-home mom in Granger, Ind. When Liam’s father would come home from work and ask Liam how his day was, Liam would often walk away. But, recalls Dr. McGuire, one day after working with Kelly, Liam spontaneously said, “My day was good. How was your day, Dad?”

Many questions remain, including why some children responded to the robot and others didn’t, and how well the skills translate to the real world. The results also showed that some children involved showed an increase in repetitive behaviors, though it isn’t clear why, said Dr. Diehl.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, a research funding and advocacy group that wasn’t involved in the study, called the findings “promising” but added that technology-based therapies aren’t meant to replace human therapists.

“They really are viewed as augmenting or sometimes setting the stage for working or interacting directly with other people,” said Dr. Dawson.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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