Robots and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Clinical and Educational Applications

Robots and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Clinical and Educational Applications

Amie Senland (Fordham University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0034-6.ch039
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Abstract

Technology featuring robots is a promising innovative technological intervention for treating and educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This chapter reviews, critiques, and presents future directions for research on clinical and educational applications of robots for these children. Specifically, this chapter reviews current research on: (1) robots that act as social mediators for children with ASD and (2) robots that assist them in developing social skills such as joint attention and imitation. A critical review of the research suggests that robots may have the capacity to assist some of these children, but additional rigorous studies are necessary to demonstrate their efficacy and effectiveness. Future research must (1) examine whether robots have differential effects for specific subgroups of children with ASD and (2) contribute to a deeper understanding of robots' potential use in educational settings.
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Introduction

During recent decades, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased dramatically (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012) and technology has become progressively influential and widespread in society. Once considered an uncommon disorder consistently characterized by intellectual disability, poor social skills, and an inability to speak (Lord & Bishop, 2010), the heterogeneity of ASD is now recognized; some individuals remain non-verbal and dependent on supports throughout life, and others continue to struggle with social communication skills despite adequate language and intelligence (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). Regardless of varied symptoms and outcomes, all children with ASD have impaired social communication and restricted, repetitive behavior, interests, or activities (American Psychological Association, 2013). The current prevalence rate for ASD is 1 in 88 children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012), ten times that of the 1990s (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). As prevalence rises, the societal and familial cost of ASD also increases. The annual cost to society for ASD is approximately $90 billion, and in addition to the typical costs of raising a child, a family of a child with ASD pays an extra $3 to $5 million across the child’s lifespan (Lord & Bishop, 2010).

Given the considerable rising impact of ASD on children, families, and society, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011) has continued to emphasize the need for evidence-based interventions for children with ASD. Alongside its broader societal advances, technology has become increasingly important in treating and educating children with ASD (Bölte, Golan, Goodwin, & Zwaigenbaum, 2010; Ploog, Scharf, Nelson, & Brooks, 2013), with robots proposed as one of many innovative technological interventions for such children. Robots might be a valuable intervention because many of these children are interested in computers (Ploog et al., 2013), and the simplicity and predictability of robots might be particularly effective in engaging such children (Bölte et al., 2010; Scassellati, Admoni, & Matarić, 2012; Thill, Pop, Belpaeme, Ziemke, & Vanderborght, 2012). Excitement about the potential use of robots for children with ASD is reflected in the media (Diehl et al., 2012). Since 2012, news clips about robots for these children have been featured on the NBC Today Show, PBS News Hour, The Stan Simpson Show, and ABC News, and numerous news articles have been written about the topic. Furthermore, in April 2013, a French robotics company, Aldebaran Robotics, announced their ASK (Autism Solution for Kids) NAO initiative (Aldebaran Robotics, 2013). This initiative allows schools and special education teachers to acquire NAO, a commercial robot, for use with students with ASD. NAO comes equipped with games designed to enhance social and communication skills in children with ASD (Aldebaran Robotics, 2013).

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