Kelly the Robot Helps Kids Tackle Autism
Small study found they tended to do better at developing social skills when this 'co-therapist' was used
The NAO H25 "Academic Edition" rings up at about $16,000. (Diehl said the study was funded by government and private grants, not the manufacturer.)
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 would have.
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 before."
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 conversational skills.
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 said.
The data and conclusions of research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.