Robots on the Autism Spectrum

Maybe it’s putting away the dishes, running errands, or selecting the perfect playlist for a dinner party--sometimes, we can all use a little help from a robot.

For children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), socially assistive robots (SAR) are stepping up in new ways and they are helping with much more than chores.

“Autism is a complex and still poorly understood challenge with a constellation of symptoms and severities,” said Dr. Maja Matarić, in a publication from the University of California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering. “It is a perfect example of a challenge that demands a completely personalized solution, one that is adapted to the child and changes with the child’s development and evolving needs.”

Though each child with ASD is unique, many have difficulty recognizing social cues and behaviors, facial expressions, and common emotions. In turn, they often struggle when communicating and interacting with others.

During the interview with USC, Matarić also shared that she “imagines a future where personalized robots might act as ‘social bridges’ between children on the spectrum and neurotypical children, helping navigate social cues and interactions.”

Before focusing her research on children with ASD, Matarić recognized the need for assistive robots over 15 years ago and began seeking solutions for affordable and reliable care for those with a wide variety of special needs. Currently, as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported Expeditions in Computing grant, Matarić and her collaborators in USC’s Interaction Lab are conducting one of the largest studies to date involving SARS and children on the spectrum. The study, which places a robot in the homes of children with ASD, examines everyday interactions between technology and families, and will provide a holistic look at life with robots.

“We need to develop truly human-centric ethical technologies, including robots,” said Matarić when discussing the potential impact of science on society.

Matarić is clear of her intentions and she isn’t alone with her vision.

At MIT’s Media Lab, Ognjen Rudovic is working to address the gaps in AI technology and socially assistive robots. On his website he shared that the current technology lacks the ability to autonomously engage with children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC), which is the key for improving the therapy and, thus, learning opportunities.

“Existing approaches typically use machine learning algorithms to estimate the engagement of children with ASC from their head-pose or eye-gaze inferred from face-videos. These approaches are rather limited for modeling atypical behavioral displays of engagement of children with ASC, which can vary considerably across the children,” wrote Rudovic.

In his current research project called EngageME, Rudovic and collaborators in MIT’s Media Lab are working to introduce machine learning models that can process and interpret everything from facial expressions to vocal and physiological cues.

With the goal of generalizing across children and cultures, EngageME is stated to…“bring novel technology/models for endowing assistive robots with ability to accurately ‘sense’ engagement levels of children with ASC during robot-assisted therapy, while providing the candidate with a set of skills needed to become one of the frontiers in the emerging field of affect-sensitive assistive technology.”

In an interview for Disability in the Digital Age, Rudovic explained that humans shouldn’t expect robots to anticipate or translate our complex inner emotions, but instead a more realistic goal “could be a robot that ‘objectively’ monitors interactions and ‘intervenes’ in gaps in the conversation to help bridge the autistic-neurotypical divide, among others.”

As robots make their way out of the lab and into the lives of those that need them most, Rudovic is certain that society will be impacted.

“Robots will inevitably alter the way we communicate today, and I am optimistic enough to say that it will happen for the better,” he said in the interview.

About the author

Jennifer Palma Sanchez is a communications expert with over a decade of experience in marketing, public relations, and corporate communications. Follow @palma_lita to keep up with her perpetual desire to learn something new.

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