The New Face of Autism Therapy
2012-12-03 0:00

By Gregory Mone |

With one in 110 children diagnosed with autism, and therapists in short supply, researchers are developing humanoids to fill the gaps. But can robots help patients forge stronger bonds with people?

In a small, sparsely furnished room, a young boy in a black T-shirt backs himself into a corner. He’s cautious. Cameras capture his movements, and microphones record every sound. But this doesn’t intimidate him; he doesn’t even seem aware that he’s being observed. His mom, sitting nearby, is not the object of his focus either. Brian (his name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is autistic, and he’s staring across the room at a two-wheeled, gray, humanoid robot with big, cartoonish eyes. The machine, Bandit, is roughly Brian’s size, and it has been trying to engage him by slowly rolling toward him.

Bandit, a robot designed to engage children with autism, has stereo cameras for eyes.

Bandit uses infrared sensing and cameras to calculate Brian’s position. Seeing that the boy is backing away, the robot tries a different approach. It stops moving and makes a “come-here” gesture, waving him closer. It works. Brian approaches and then stands alongside Bandit, shoulder-to-plastic-shoulder. Bandit stops moving, and Brian backs off. The boy is like a boxer sizing up an opponent. Finally, emboldened, Brian steps up to the robot and leans his face toward it, curious and confident. For the researchers observing the interaction through a two-way mirror in an adjoining room, this small gesture is an encouraging sign. The boy is warming up to the machine, and that’s the point.

This unusual pair is part of a research initiative at the University of Southern California to build robots sympathetic and sensitive enough to serve as both therapists and playmates to kids with autism. Bandit is programmed to perform simple facial expressions and movements, and researchers are working to give the robot the ability to make complex decisions in response to the child’s behavior. This way, Bandit and robots like it could draw socially detached kids into simple games, like Simon Says or hide-and-seek and, ultimately, social activities with people. As USC computer scientist and project leader Maja Matari´c explains, “The robot is a catalyst for social interaction.”

In its current form, Bandit has only rudimentary social skills. For instance, it cannot yet understand speech; a researcher in the other room must command the robot to respond if the child speaks to it. But early results are encouraging. Matari´c’s team has conducted experiments similar to the interaction between Bandit and Brian with 14 other autistic children, most between five and nine years old. Some of the kids were incapable of speech, while others could talk in full sentences but were prone to physical tics like hand-flapping or obsessions with moving objects like trains. The interactions lasted on average about five minutes—not long enough to produce permanent behavioral changes—but many of the children became more sociable, and more vocal, with a robot in the room.

That may seem surprising, since robots are hardly known for warmth and sociability. Yet there is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. “They find unlawful situations toxic,” he says. “They can’t cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects.”


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