Robot Playmates Monitor Emotional State Of Children With ASD

Robot Playmates
Mechanized Robot
 

Fancy to have a robot for your children with autism and can teach your children social skills? Sound like a fantasy? Yes but the day has come a step closer with the development of a system that allows a robot to monitor a child’s emotional state.


“There is a lot of research going on around the world today trying to use robots to treat children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It has shown that the children are attracted to robots, raising the promise that appropriately designed robots could play an important role in their treatment,” says Nilanjan Sarkar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University. “However, the efforts so far have been quite limited because they haven’t had a way to monitor the emotional state of the children, which would allow the robot to respond automatically to their reactions.”

Benefits of Robots
If robots could monitor emotional state of the children and respond to their reactions, the use of robots to treat children with ASD could have a significant social and financial impact. Currently, treatment of these children involves a combination of behavioral, educational, physical, occupational and speech therapies, sometimes accompanied by medication for co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, irritability, bi-polar and other disorders. The average cost of caring for one person with autism for life is $3.2 million. In total, autism currently costs the U.S. more than $90 billion per year, and that cost is projected to double by 2017 due to the growing population of those affected.

The ability to accurately monitor a child’s emotional state is particularly important in treating ASD, Stone says: “Children with autism are not necessarily giving the kind of emotional cues that we know how to read. They are not necessarily good reporters of their inner feelings. If we know that the child is becoming upset or anxious, then we can help the child identify his or her own emotional state and implement strategies for monitoring and control. It is a concrete way to help them identify their own feelings.” 

Recent Research

Over the last five years, Sarkar has developed a method that uses physiological measurements, including heart rate, galvanic skin response, temperature and muscle response, to monitor the emotional state of individuals and uses the technique to aid children with ASD.
The researchers report that the physiological data they gathered can be used to develop an affective model for each individual that can predict his or her emotional states of liking, anxiety and engagement with an accuracy of better than 80 percent. “The model is about as good at identifying a child’s emotional state as an experienced therapist. When a child gets a new therapist, as often happens, there is a learning curve as the new therapist gets to know the child, whereas the accuracy of the model should continue to improve over time,” Sarkar points out.

Usefulness of the Research

A robot’s ability to provide consistent and predictable responses should be particularly useful for treating ASD. Each child has individual triggers. For example, one child may not like direct eye contact. Another might be upset by loud voices and sounds. Yet another may react when people get too close. Once a particular trigger is identified, a robot could be programmed to increase the stimulus at such a gradual rate that the child doesn’t notice it. The robot could also be programmed to back off when it senses that its responses are beginning to bother the child. In this fashion, it could build up the child’s tolerance to the problem stimulus. “Robots can be programmed to respond with a consistency that is difficult for humans to achieve,” Sarkar points out.
 

According to the autism expert, something that robots lack may also be an advantage in this setting. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of teaching social skills in a non-social situation that is less threatening. The children can be distracted by a lot of sensory stimuli coming at them. Social stimuli are particularly complex and can confuse them. So alternative methods of teaching that can subtract the social component could be very helpful as a beginning step,” Stone says.


In The Future

“This approach holds great promise,” says Stone. “It will involve many steps and this is just the beginning. There are lots of different possible applications. So it is just a matter of finding the resources to explore them all.”

In the future, the researchers foresee technologies like robots and virtual reality environments as taking over some of the burden of the behavioral therapy that is one of the most time-consuming and expensive aspects of ASD treatment.

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