WEDNESDAY, May 1 (HealthDay News) -- Using a kid-friendly robot
during behavioral therapy sessions may help some children with
autism gain better social skills, a preliminary study suggests.
The study, of 19 children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs),
found that kids tended to do better when their visit with a
therapist included a robot "co-therapist." On average, they made
bigger gains in social skills such as asking "appropriate"
questions, answering questions and making conversational
So-called humanoid robots are already being marketed for this
purpose, but there has been little research to back it up.
"Going into this study, we were skeptical," said lead researcher
Joshua Diehl, an assistant professor of psychology at the
University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who said he has no financial
interest in the technology.
"We found that, to our surprise, the kids did better when the
robot was added," he said.
There are still plenty of caveats, however, said Diehl, who is
presenting his team's findings Saturday at the International
Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in San Sebastian, Spain.
For one, the study was small. And it's not clear that the
results seen in a controlled research setting would be the same in
the real world of therapists' offices, according to Diehl.
"I'd say this is not yet ready for prime time," he said.
ASDs are a group of developmental disorders that affect a
person's ability to communicate and interact socially. The severity
of those effects range widely: Some people have mild problems
socializing, but have normal to above-normal intelligence; some
people have profound difficulties relating to others, and may have
intellectual impairment as well.
Experts have become interested in using technology -- from
robots to iPads -- along with standard ASD therapies because it may
help bridge some of the communication issues kids have.
Human communication is complex and unpredictable, with body
language, facial expressions and other subtle cues coming into the
mix, explained Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the
advocacy group Autism Speaks.
A robot or a computer game, on the other hand, can be programmed
to be simple and predictable, and that may help kids with ASDs
better process the information they are being given, Dawson
"Broadly speaking," she said, "we are very excited about the
potential role for technology in diagnosing and treating ASDs." But
she also agreed with Diehl that the findings are "very
preliminary," and that researchers have a lot more to learn about
how technology -- robots or otherwise -- fits into ASD
For the study, Diehl's team used a humanoid robot manufactured
by Aldebaran Robotics, which markets the NAO robot for use in
education, including special education for kids with ASDs. The
robot, which stands at about 2 feet tall, looks like a toy but it's
priced more like a small car, Diehl noted.
The NAO H25 "Academic Edition" rings up at about $16,000. (Diehl
said the study was funded by government and private grants, not the
The researchers had 19 kids aged 6 to 13 complete 12 behavioral
therapy sessions, where a therapist worked with the child on social
skills. Half of the sessions involved the robot, named Kelly, which
was wheeled out so the child could practice conversing with her,
while the therapist stood by.
"So the child might say, 'Hi Kelly, how are you?'" Diehl
explained. "Then Kelly would say, 'Fine. What did you do today?'"
During the non-Kelly sessions, another person entered the room and
carried on the same conversation with the child that the robot
On average, Diehl's team found, kids made bigger gains from the
sessions that included Kelly -- based on both their interactions
with their therapists, and their parents' reports.
"There was one child who, when his dad came home from work,
asked him how his day was," Diehl said. "He'd never done that
Still, he stressed that while the robot sessions seemed more
successful on average, the children varied widely in their
responses to Kelly. Going forward, Diehl said, it will be important
to figure out whether there are certain kids with ASDs more likely
to benefit from a robot co-therapist.
Dawson agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all ASD therapy.
"Any therapy for a person with an ASD has to be individualized,"
she said. The idea with any technology, she added, is to give
therapists and doctors extra "tools" to work with.
A separate study presented at the same meeting looked at another
type of tool. Researchers had 60 "minimally verbal" children with
ASDs attend two "play-based" sessions per week, aimed at boosting
their ability to speak and gesture. Half of the kids were also
given a "speech-generating device," like an iPad.
Three and six months later, children who worked with the devices
were able to say more words and were quicker to take up
Dawson said the robot and iPad studies are just part of the
growing body of research into how technology can not only aid in
ASD therapies, but also help doctors diagnose the disorders or help
parents manage at home.
But both Diehl and Dawson stressed that no robot or iPad is
intended to stand in for human connection. The idea, after all, is
to enhance kids' ability to communicate and have relationships,
Dawson noted. "Technology will never take the place of people," she
The data and conclusions of research presented at meetings
should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed
Autism Speaks has information on
autism and technology.