NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Parents cherish bedtime stories and games with their little ones, but children with autism can't always focus during those special times. Now, researchers are learning how robots could play a role in helping these kids learn how to pay attention.
With glowing eyes and a high-tech voice, a robot grabs the attention of Robbie Pruitt.
Robbie has autism. Researchers at Vanderbilt University are using a robot to teach him how to focus on people and objects in his environment.
“Try to get a kid to clean up when he can't pay attention to what's on the floor. It's difficult,” Sabrina Pruitt, Robbie’s mother, told Ivanhoe.
Dr. Zachary Warren says kids with autism seem to be drawn to technology. So robots could be key in teaching social interaction.
"Children with autism are spending much more time looking at the robot than they would be a human counterpart,” Zachary Warren, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and Autism Researcher at Vanderbilt University, told Ivanhoe.
The robot directs Robbie to look at a wall monitor. Smart sensors detect that Robbie followed the prompt, so he is rewarded with a video.
The robot also directs Robbie’s gaze by pointing.
"We’ve seen that the children are responding very accurately to the robot prompt,” Dr. Warren said.
Tiring work, but Robbie’s parents say his interaction skills are improving.
In a study published this year, researchers found that children with autism paid more attention to the robot than the human therapist and followed its instructions almost as well. Researchers say robots could ease the workload of autism therapists and they hope to study whether robots are a cost effective way to accelerate other learning skills as well.