NAO (pronounced "now") is the diminutive "front man" for an elaborate system of cameras, sensors and computers designed specifically to help children learn how to coordinate their attention with other people and objects in their environment.
This basic social skill is called joint attention. Typically developing children learn it naturally.
Children with autism, however, have difficulty mastering it and that inability can compound into a variety of learning difficulties as they age.
An interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt University have developed the system and used it to demonstrate that robotic systems may be powerful tools for enhancing the basic social learning skills of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The researchers report that children with ASD paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions almost as well as they did those of a human therapist in standard exercises used to develop joint attention skill.
The finding indicates that robots could play a crucial role in responding to the "public health emergency" that has been created by the rapid growth in the number of children being diagnosed with ASD.
Today, one in 88 children (one in 54 boys) are being diagnosed with ASD. That is a 78 percent increase in just four years.
The trend has major implications for the healthcare budget because estimates of the lifetime cost of treating ASD patients ranges from four to six times greater than for patients without autism.
"This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism," team member Zachary Warren, who directs the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center said.
The initial impetus for the project came from Vanderbilt Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Engineering Nilanjan Sarkar.
His original research involved the development of systems to improve the man-machine interface.
He did so by outfitting computer/robot users with biosensors and analyzing variations in various readings like blood pressure and skin response to evaluate their emotional state.
The information was used to program computers and robots to respond accordingly.
Six years ago, when visiting his cousin in India, Sarkar learned that his cousin's son had been diagnosed with ASD.
"After I learned something about autism, it occurred to me that my research could be valuable for treating ASD," he said.
At the time, several experiments had been conducted that suggested young children in general, and young children with ASD in particular, found robots especially appealing.
"We knew that this gave us an advantage, but we had to figure out how to leverage it to improve the children's social skills," Sarkar said.
The research is published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.
--ANI (Posted on 21-03-2013)