Magazine article Newsweek

Robots Could Be Key to Teaching Autistic Children Social Skills; "The Robot's Simplicity Is Key."

Magazine article Newsweek

Robots Could Be Key to Teaching Autistic Children Social Skills; "The Robot's Simplicity Is Key."

Article excerpt

Byline: Shira Rubin

Leo Bracaliello, a 2-year-old child who has been diagnosed with autism, sits cross-legged on his white carpet, his big blue eyes fixated on the face of a robot, singing in monotone, "If you're happy and you know it--" When the song finishes, Leo mumbles to his mother, "Again." The robot obliges.

It was one of Leo's first sessions with Kaspar, a social robot on loan from the nearby University of Hertfordshire in England. Only a few of those early sit-downs resulted in what scientists call "gaze following," a critical first step for social exchange that autistic children often have difficulty with. But in six months of hosting his mechanical friend, Leo began to memorize the robot's gestures, songs and phrases and became increasingly excited by its games.

About one in every 160 children in the world has autism, estimates the World Health Organization. While the condition covers a vast range of behaviors, it is generally characterized by some degree of impaired social behavior, communication and language, as well as a tendency toward a narrow range of interests and activities--all of which, say many therapists, robots have helped alleviate.

Although many parents initially find Kaspar frightening, likening it to a mini-Frankenstein or a fugitive from the Island of Misfit Toys, autistic children welcome the respite from the overwhelmingly nuanced human face, says Kaspar project director Ben Robins. Unlike speech therapists or parents, robots have endless patience and zero judgment. They are predictable and nonintimidating. …

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