Robot Therapy Research for Children with Autism

The Barber National Institute in Erie, PA and the University of Notre Dame are collaborating on a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of using a robot in clinical therapy for treatment of children with autism.

The study focuses on the development of communication and social skills. 

Download a fact sheet about the robot research pilot project

Pilot Phase of Robot Therapy Autism Research Plans

The pilot phase of the project began in April, 2012 at the Barber National Institute in Erie, PA with four children from the Elizabeth Lee Black School. The research, which is expected to be conducted over the next 2-3 years, will likely be expanded to include students with autism attending their home schools in the community. 

The study will chart the effectiveness of adding the robot to autism therapy sessions as compared to a therapist working alone.

Appeal of Technology in Autism Therapy 

The robots will serve as reinforcements and motivators to engage the children during therapy.

“We have found that children with autism seem to have a natural interest in technology and are very motivated by the robot,” said Dr. Joshua Diehl, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “Our goal is then to generalize the skills that they are learning with the robot to their communication with humans in their lives.”

The therapist, or socials skills coach, works alongside the child and the robot in one room while in constant contact with two other members of the research team.

Jennifer Musolff, MS, BCBA, serving in the position of “headmaster,” will be instructing the therapist in prompts  and reinforcing responses.  Dan Portenier, MS, will serve as the “wizard,” programming the robot’s responses through a computer. The headmaster and wizard are also able to see the therapy through one-way glass into the treatment room. 

The robot is pre-programmed with at least 15 automatic responses, reinforcing statements and various movements, such as, “Great job!” while the robot claps his hands.  In addition, the wizard can quickly input new responses to questions or comments that a child may raise in therapy.  

Providing Reinforcement for Children with Autism

Programmers at Notre Dame wrote “Domer,” a software program used in the therapy sessions to provide customized responses. The program allows the team to create a folder for each child that includes responses commonly used during therapy, special interests, etc.

About the Robots

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. 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.

Preparing for the Project

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. 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 examining the real-world application of the approach. 

“The collaboration with the Barber National Institute enables this research to move into a new level,” said Dr. Diehl.  “One of the key questions that we are trying to answer is ‘what level of autism will respond best to this therapy.’ 

Since the Barber Institute is one of the largest providers of services to children in Pennsylvania, we will now be able to involve many more children with a wide range of ages and levels of disability to really determine which children will benefit the most. Moreover, we will be able to examine whether we can transfer our findings from the laboratory setting to the clinical setting.” As the research moves past the pilot phase, the team expects to involve 6-8 children during each 8-week testing period.

Philanthropic Support Needed

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.

“As with most research, reimbursement from state or federal governments is not available to fund the costs,” said Barber. "But we believe that it is vital to advance our search for effective treatments, and are grateful that the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Foundation funded the initial costs of this project. We encourage other individuals or businesses who might be interested to consider a donation to this worthy endeavor." 

Individuals or businesses interested in funding opportunities for the Robot Therapy Research Project of the Barber National Institute & the University of Notre Dame should contact the Barber Foundation at 814-878-4033 or email garybukowski@barberinstitute.org.