Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is among the most common mental disorders. According to the National Autistic Society there are 700,000 people with some form of autism in the UK. Although there are relatively many people with autism there is still no cure. Hope resides in making the lives of people with ASD easier using social robots. Earlier this year researchers at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in collaboration with Adelante, Heliomare, University of Siena, University of Hertfordshire, Proteion and Sevagram published their findings on using social robots in healthcare.
One of the robots developed for the study is a device called KASPAR. The interactive puppet has the size of a small child and resides on top of a table. Due to the difficulties of autistic people with processing and reading emotion the puppet has been given a minimal amount of facial expression.
KASPAR is capable of moving his hands, arms, face, eyes, mouth and torso. Aside that, KASPAR is also able to pronounce pre-programmed sentences and play music. Sensors in its limbs can thereby activate pre-programmed actions. Specialists are also able to take over control from a distance when necessary.
KASPAR has proven capable of allowing specialists to realise desirable results. In one scenario the researchers point to a situation in which the robot was programmed to make a sneezing sound. A child with ASD started socially interacting with the robot by responding to it with ‘bless you’ and hugging it enthusiastically. The child eventually referred to the robot as his best friend.
What makes the social robot especially interesting for autism therapy is that the sessions have a clear start and end. This is something that is of importance to people with ASD, which require clarity and find it hard to cope with change or unexpected events. The purely verbal communication between the autism patient and KASPAR thereby allowed it to easily call an ASD patient to him, be controlled naturally and more easily share assignments. This is something that cannot be achieved with a touch-screen or gesture based system.
The researchers conclude KASPAR can provide an important contribution to enhance the communication, play skills and social interaction of ASD patients. The social robot’s ease of access, predictability, neutral design and action-reaction capacity are all remarked as added values for people with ASD.
Claire Huijnen from the Windesheim University of Applied Sciences believes the biggest pitfall in using robots in healthcare is that the expectations of the people involved are set too high. “Health professionals expect that robots are completely finished and can directly be used for interventions in practise. In reality this is too far fetched.“ Professionals in healthcare and technology would be required to look at the human needs of ASD patients together, developing the right technological solutions for interventions as a team.
Developing and testing the scenario’s for KASPAR took relatively much time during the study period. The researchers therefore hope that it will be possible to perform this faster in the future.