Robot revolution to help train autistic children

Top News | Cissy So 29 May 2018

Can robots teach children about emotions? It's a resounding yes according to researchers at Chinese University.

The researchers, who signed a deal with NEC Hong Kong, have developed robots that can help autistic kids improve their communication and social skills.

During training sessions, the interactive robots - called Humanes - will engage children with role-play activities.

"The robot-based training can be considered an effective early intervention," said So Wing-chee, an associate professor of the Department of Educational Psychology at CUHK.

"The training will be adjusted based on the diverse learning needs and verbal abilities of autistic children.

"The advantage of a robot is that it doesn't have emotional fluctuations, so autistic children will be more patient during training."

The latest program on offer is the Robot for Autism Behavioral Intervention. Its concept is role-play training targeted at autistic children aged between three and seven with diverse learning needs. This will help integrate them into society.

Autistic children with stronger verbal abilities will be taught emotional understanding and appropriate behavior in specific scenarios, such as riding on a bus, studying in a classroom or visiting a doctor.

Those with less verbal abilities will be taught simple communication and self-care routines.

The team will first learn about a child's interests and program a Humane robot to motivate them to request objects they like.

According to the Mental Health Review Report, there were 2,000 new cases of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2016.

Children diagnosed with ASD commonly show impairments in communication, social interaction and behavior.

They also have sensory issues and often produce responses termed as "challenging behavior." Such behavior worsens with age and emphasizes the need for early intervention.

A robot-based gesture intervention program was launched by So's team in 2015, and more than 350 preschool and school-aged children with ASD have participated in it. For that, the team deployed social robots to imitate human actions.

The team has also reached out to preschool kids with ASD through various non-profit groups and provided them with robot-based intervention free as it is supported by the CUHK and the government.

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