How are robots helping autism?

28th March 2023
Sheryl Miles

It is believed that there are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK, and 75 million people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) worldwide – which equates to approximately 1% of the global population. Of this number, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), around one in 100 children have ASD.

ASD has three common features which could affect the way a person: interacts in social situations, communicates with other people, and interacts and experiences the world around them.

According to a paper published by the National Library of Medicine: “Recent studies show that robots are well-accepted by children and young people on the autism spectrum and are linked to positive impact on imitation skills, eye-contact, joint attention, behavioural response, and repetitive and stereotyped behaviour.”

Making a connection

Maja Pantic, AI Scientific Research Lead, Meta, completed her Bachelor’s degree, Masters degree and PhD all in artificial intelligence, specifically studying the topic of automatic understanding of human faces and apparent human emotions.

Speaking at the everywomen tech forum in March, she commented that: “I was more inclined towards applied AI. I really wanted to see where all these technologies and methodologies that we are developing could be applied … It gave me inspiration that we can solve some problems, for example, helping autistic children to be able to learn prototypic expressions of emotions.”

For people with autism, one of the key symptoms is that they are unable to make eye contact with other people and tend to look down, thus limiting their ability to learn how others express emotions and emotional reactions. This further leads to a person with autism expressing their emotions in a different way from someone who does not have ASD.

Pantic further commented that her team used a robot to help teach children different expressions, allowing them the opportunity to learn different types of emotion. “Robots are something that autistic children love and are not afraid to look at,” she said.

This ability to make connections and understand expressions is an important aspect of understanding the world around us, and facial expressions are one of the most important aspects of human connection. Through visual clues and references, a person can perceive thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

How are robots helping?

  • Social Interaction – Children with autism often struggle with social interactions. Robots can be programmed to interact with children in a predictable and structured way, providing a safe and comfortable environment for children to learn and practice social skills.
  • Communication – Many children with autism have difficulty communicating verbally. Robots can be programmed to use pictures, symbols, or other visual aids to help children communicate.
  • Sensory Integration – Some children with autism are hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or bright lights. Robots can be used to provide sensory input in a controlled and predictable way, helping children learn to integrate and tolerate different sensory experiences.
  • Therapy – Robots can be used as a tool for therapy, providing a motivating and engaging platform for children to work on specific skills or behaviours.

The use of robots is helping not only autistic children to understand the emotions and expressions of others, but it is also enabling further understanding of the condition and how we can better help those with ASD to integrate more fully into society.

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