Children with autism could see meaningful social skills gains from working with an interactive robot at home, researchers say.
A study published this month in the journal Science Robotics found that kids on the spectrum who spent just 30 minutes a day with the so-called social robots made significant improvements in eye contact and social behaviors.
“The children showed improved performance across the board,” said Brian Scassellati, a professor of computer science at Yale University who led the study. “This was more than we had hoped; not only did the children and parents still enjoy working with the robot after a month, but the children were showing improvements that persisted even when the robots were not around.”
For the study, 12 kids with autism ages 6 to 12 were assessed on their social and emotional development. Then, a robot was placed in each of their homes for 30 days.
The children spent a half hour each day working with a caregiver and the robot on activities promoting emotional storytelling, perspective-taking and sequencing. The robot, which is specially designed to interact with people, adapted to the individual using various games depending on the child’s progress.
After the month concluded, the children were then evaluated again and the researchers found clinical measurements of social improvement. What’s more, the kids’ caregivers indicated that the children were better at making eye contact and seeking out communication.
The researchers said their findings suggest that social robots can be successfully used outside of a clinical setting and support further study of the technology.
“These are kids who have years of experience with the idea that social interaction is challenging and something they don’t understand,” Scassellati said. “When they interact with the robot, though, it triggers social responses but it doesn’t trigger a lot of the other baggage they’ve come to associate with social interaction.”