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The Best Teachers For Autistic Children: Robots

NAO is a robot whose job it is to help autistic children overcome their difficulties with early learning—and it’s having a lot of success.

We normally think of robots as being inferior communicators. But in the case of a robot called NAO, it’s the automaton that’s breaking through where humans can’t.

NAO, based at Vanderbilt University, is helping kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—a type of communication deficit that hinders early learning.

The video above follows a three-year old named Aiden, who lacks a basic social skill called "joint attention." The two-foot robot is linked to cameras spread about the room, as well as screens at the side showing cartoons. The robot gives commands like "look over here" and "let’s do some more," then points at the display, asking Aiden to respond. The robot knows whether he is following the prompts from the cameras, which track the child’s head movements. If Aiden fails to go along, NAO will speak to him again.

The Vanderbilt researchers are using robots instead of humans because they’ve found that autistic children are more likely to respond. The work could point to a "critical to early intervention," allowing children to be more responsive to humans, and thus to learn more normally.

Their paper is published in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering and is based on experiments with six children with ASD, and six normally developing kids, all under five.

Two of the researchers are now working on similar robot-centric systems for other ASD disorders, such as imitation learning, role playing, and sharing. It’s strange to think that robots are teaching humans to be more "normal."