Robot Therapy Research for Children with Autism Update

The Barber National Institute in Erie, PA and the University of Notre Dame have completed the research project evaluating the effectiveness of using a robot in clinical therapy for treatment of children with autism. The study focused on the development of communication and social skills. The data is currently being analyzed. Following this analysis, the results will be formatted for publication.

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Overview of Study

The project began in April 2012 at the Barber National Institute in Erie, PA with four children from the Elizabeth Lee Black School. The study evaluated the effectiveness of adding the robot to autism therapy sessions as compared to a therapist working alone.

Prior to beginning the research, each child was given an extensive pre-assessment that included an IQ test, developmental screening, and tests for language and social skill levels. The results were used to set goals in therapy and pair the participant with a child on a similar developmental level.  The team met with each child’s parents before and after sessions begin, as well as weekly during the therapy. 

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 were 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

Appeal of Technology in Autism Therapy 

The robots served as reinforcements and motivators to engage the children during therapy. The therapist, or socials skills coach, worked alongside the child and the robot in one room while in constant contact with two other members of the research team.“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 and Notre Dame lead on the project. 

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

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