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Robot Playmates Help Autistic Kids With Social Skills

Researchers say finding could be used for creation of new therapy tools

THURSDAY, Aug. 7, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) interact more easily with mechanical devices than with humans, according to new reports.

Researchers at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, who have presented their finding at various conferences in the United States and in Europe this summer, found that Socially Assisted Robotics (SAR) that blow bubbles, toot horns and even make facial expressions appear to increase the child's speech and interaction levels.

"I am gratified by these preliminary results," Maja Mataric, a professor at the USC Interaction Laboratory, said in a news releases issued by the university. "I believe that Socially Assistive Robotics has a part to play in helping families, both the affected children and their parents and siblings."

The initial study, reported in a June Conference on Interaction Design for Children with Special Needs in Chicago, paired an ASD child with a colorful bubble-blowing wheeled robot that either operated on its own or blew bubbles when the child pushed a button.

"We found that the behavior of the robot affects the social behavior of a child (both human-human interaction and human-robot interaction): social behavior with a contingent robot was greater than with a random robot," the report stated.

"Generally, when the robot was acting contingently, the child was more sociable," the authors wrote.

Two other presentations -- made at the International Symposium on Experimental Robotics in Athens, Greece, in July, and at the IEEE Proceedings of the International Workshop on Robot and Human Interactive Communication -- discuss these results and efforts to make the robots flexible and useful tools in ASD therapy.

More information

The Autism Society of America has more about autism.

SOURCE: University of Southern California, news release, July 22, 2008
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