Are Robots an Answer to Social Skills?

TRR_6219All of us have struggled when our children plateau in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy. We ask ourselves “what else can we do?

Dr. Diehl, of Notre Dame turned to technology to investigate this answer.  Below are highlights of his research study from his presentation at the BNI last night.

Dr. Diehl and the F.U.N. Lab team enrolled nineteen children with ASD between the ages of six and thirteen. The subjects participated in twelve sessions. In six of the sessions a robot co-therapist was present and in six sessions only the therapist (no robot) participated. The goals were individualized but Dr. Diehl was measuring the child’s response to questions, ability to ask questions and make appropriate social comments.

Joshua Diehl..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Dr. Joshua Diehl
Notre Dame

The outcomes were encouraging. Responses nearly doubled during the time when a robot co-therapist was present. Also, these social skills generalized outside the therapy session. Dr. Diehl stated that “children with ASD have strengths understanding the physical world vs. the social world and we can use technology to bridge this gap.”  This is true of many children with ASD however, as the study indicated, there were considerable individual differences.

Although a seemingly small study, the results are significant as it’s the largest study of its kind to date. Seventeen of the nineteen children showed overall improvement in social skills with the majority showing greater gains during the sessions that included the robot co-therapist.

In a parallel study here at the BNI, seven children between the ages of three and nine years participated in sixteen sessions. Eight sessions were with a robot co-therapist and 8 were without. Our results were similar to Dr. Diehl’s with significant improvement when the robot was a co-therapist. Generalization outside of the therapy room also occurred.

What’s next?

We are excited to continue our work with Dr. Diehl using the robot as a co-therapist. The future is also exciting for Dr. Diehl and the F.U.N. Lab. They recently submitted a grant to Autism Speaks to adapt robot co-therapy into a more practical form. If approved, Dr. Diehl will be looking at the use of video clips of a robot that could be accessed via an iPad or laptop in a therapy room.

Technology is a key component in the treatment of children with ASD. As Dr. Diehl stated “technology should be used to supplement and enhance but not replace social interaction.” I couldn’t agree with him more and can’t wait to see what the future will hold.


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2 Responses to Are Robots an Answer to Social Skills?

  1. randyortiz2 says:

    Forgive my reluctance on this one…I get that a robot is virtually tireless, but a major part of social skills is teaching the mechanics of empathy. What comes to most of us naturally has to be taught. I have been teaching my daughter to look at my eyes. My eyes will tell you if I am in the mood for conversation, whether I am happy or sad or angry or tired.

    But who knows…

    • Thanks for following the blog. Please keep in mind that the robot is paired with a therapist. Of course the robot will not show emotion, but the robot could interpret the therapist as being happy or sad and then could suggest to the child that you need to look at someone’s eyes to know what emotion they are feeling. Just a thought..

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