Robotics and Autism: Is the Future Nao?

Is now the time for Nao? Nao is a 22-inch humanoid robot ( designed by Aldebaran, a French robotics manufacturer, that has been put to work by the psychology department at the University of Notre Dame. Nao’s purpose: to help researchers determine if the aid of a sophisticated robot can enhance the therapy experience for children with autism by bridging the gulf between the world of human social interaction that so often leaves them perplexed, anxious and frustrated and the world of science and technology that they prefer.

Anecdotally, according to Notre Dame’s Nao Co-Principal Investigator Joshua Diehl, “many parents of children with autism and the other adults who collaborate with them will notice this preference, which recent studies have shown surfaces early in a child’s life.”

An assistant professor at Notre Dame, Dr. Diehl specializes in developmental disorders, particularly those among children on the autism spectrum and those with dyslexia. His Nao project, still in its early stages, is tied to his current research and therapy projects, all of which are behavior-based.

“What’s unique about our program,” he explains, “is that we are trying to use a piece of technology – Nao – that possesses many human social characteristics to help children with autism to integrate their interest in the inanimate physical world with a social terrain that proves treacherous for them but which they have to learn to navigate.”

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), he explains, fall within a spectrum of behaviors, some of which are more serious and difficult to overcome than others. Communication difficulty, he adds, is the signature characteristic for all children on the autism spectrum. The irony, however, “is that many of these kids desire social interaction, but comprehension of the rules of social discourse is a problem because they often don’t understand social norms.”

In basic conversations, he says, words, gestures, voice inflection and facial expressions are intuitive and naturally delivered by most individuals. “Kids with autism, however, can master individual behaviors but combining them and integrating them into face-to-face conversation can be very difficult and often very frustrating.”

In his therapy sessions involving children with autism, Dr. Diehl focuses on isolating individual behaviors and teaching communication behavior on a behavior-by-behavior basis. The use of Nao, a robot programmed to simplify communication gestures and facial expressions, aids in teaching children on the autism spectrum to utilize and understand these communication behaviors.

This issue of the Family Center on Technology and Disability’s monthly newsletter is dedicated to the Nao concept and the use of robotic therapy aids for children with autism.

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