Over the past several years, more than $100 million has been spend trying to find the cause of autism. While this research is very important, I believe that we also have to invest in trying to find more effective treatment options. That is why we were so excited today to join the University of Notre Dame in announcing our collaboration on a new research project. Over the next 24-36 months, we will be evaluating the effectiveness of using a humanoid robot in clinical therapy for children ages 13-17 with autism.
The pilot phase of the project began in April at the Barber National Institute with four children from the Elizabeth Lee Black School. The initial study involves two 5-year old boys and two 3-year old girls. As the research moves past the pilot phase, the team expects to involve 6-8 children during each 8-week testing period.
The study will chart the effectiveness of adding the robot to therapy sessions as compared to a therapist working alone. To obtain the data, two children with similar skill levels are paired with one another to compare results. While one child is working with the robot and therapist, the other will work with just the therapist. They will then switch to determine the effect that the robot makes in learning. Therapy sessions will be held twice per week for a total of 16 sessions.
While each child will have individualized objectives to achieve in therapy, the general goals include:
–Increasing social and communication skills
–Developing conversation skills (stay on topic, converse back and forth)
–Promoting spontaneous communication
The robots will serve as reinforcements and motivators to engage the children.
Each session will be videotaped, and the child’s responses to the robot and the therapist will be tabulated from each session. Both the video and the data will be sent daily to the University of Notre Dame and reviewed at the Barber National Institute.
Prior to beginning the research, each child is given an extensive pre-assessment that includes an IQ test, developmental screening and tests for language and social skill levels. The results are used to set goals in therapy and pair the participant with a child on a similar developmental level. The team meets with each child’s parents before and after sessions begin, as well as weekly during the therapy.
The robots are NAO interactive humanoid robots developed and built by Aldebaran Robotics headquartered in France. To make them relatable for both genders, a male and female robot have been designated and programmed with responses about their favorite colors, sports teams, pets and other topics. At the Barber National Institute, the robots have been named Brendan and Briana (Bree), two names selected to honor the Irish heritage of the Institute’s founder, Dr. Gertrude A. Barber.
Notre Dame began investigating the use of robots in autism therapy in 2011, and has since tested 15 children as part of the research. The affiliation with the Barber National Institute will provide a larger pool of children for the project, and it will also allow for the examination of the real-world application of the approach.
The University of Notre Dame is applying for grants to help fund the project, and both the university and the Barber National Institute are turning to private donors for assistance.
I am very excited to be part of this project, which we believe will open many new doors for children on the autism spectrum! I will be providing further information in future blogs as research progresses. To learn more, visit the robot research page at the Barber Institute website.