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Socially Assistive Robotics for Socialization and Communication Training in Children with Autism 

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been shown to respond socially to simple robots. While interest in and engagement with machines has been reliably observed, it remains to be validated whether such interactions can lead toward improvements in the child’s communication and social skill training. The goal of this study was to test and validate the possibility of transference of communication and social skills between robots and children with autism toward family, peers, and others.

This study brought together experts in ASD, social behavior, and intelligent socially assistive robotics. Their combined expertise and resources were brought to bear, in a principled hypothesis-testing approach, not to develop new technology, but to study ways in which existing technology could be applied for effective therapeutic use. Through the involvement of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles , children across the ASD spectrum participated in the study.

The child-robot interactions began as simple scenarios, and gradually increased in complexity in a child-specific, individualized manner. They involved social and communication skills such as pointing, the use of personal pronouns, and joint attention, imitation, turn-taking, and vocal communication. The study involved family members and peers, testing how child-robot communication and social interaction could be transferred to child-robot-peer and, eventually, toward child-peer communication and interaction. Different robot forms were tested, from simple car-like platforms to more complex but affordable human-like machines. The results of child-robot interactions were compared to interactions with computers, caretakers, and peers, to identify the potential role and effectiveness of robots as therapeutic tools for children with autism.