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Social robot ameliorates gesture deficits in schoolchildren with autism

Jackey Suen
09 Dec 2015

The use of social robots can improve gesture recognition and application in local schoolchildren with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), data from the new Robotic Intervention Programme of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) have shown.

The programme was initiated based on results of three local studies, which showed lower gesture production in ASD children aged 6-12 years compared with their typically-developing counterparts.

“Most autism research on child gestural production has been conducted among those aged <6 years. In contrast, gestural production of ASD children in elementary school [aged 6-12 years] was largely uncharted,” said Dr. Catherine So of CUHK’s Department of Educational Psychology and lead investigator of the three studies and the intervention programme, at the International Symposium on Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience: From Molecular to Behaviour organized by the Brain and Mind Institute, CUHK. “Our three recent studies analyzed for the first time gestural communication in children with ASD in this age range.”

The first study examined the children’s gestures when they were playing farm blocks with experimenters. Compared to typically-developing children, ASD children were found to gesture less often and use fewer types of gestures, particularly markers (gestures carrying culture-specific meanings, such as a nod signifying agreement). [Autism 2015;19:956-968]

In the second study, ASD children and typically-developing children were asked to use nonpresent objects to describe how they performed daily activities. “Although children with ASD produced more iconic gestures [gestures illustrating physical objects] to aid description, they gestured at specific locations significantly less often than their typically-developing counterparts,” pointed out So. [J Speech Lang Hear Res 2015;58:373-382]

“Our third study applied the same modality used in the first study, but the ASD children were further divided into low-functioning and high-functioning ASD groups. We found that those with low-functioning ASD gestured least often,” she said.

“These studies indicate that school-aged children with ASD, particularly those with low-functioning ASD, have a delay in the learning of gestures. There is a need to develop an intervention programme to teach them gestures, thereby enhancing their socio-communicative skills,” she continued.

So and colleagues therefore launched the Robotic Intervention Programme, which makes use of an animated robot to teach ASD children to recognize and imitate a set of 20 markers and iconic gestures, and to produce these gestures in appropriate social contexts.

“Compared with baseline, ASD children who participated in the programme were able to recognize and produce more gestures immediately and 2 weeks after the intervention,” she reported. “We recently bought a new social robot with the support from our department. The robot, named KYA, is currently being reprogrammed to produce various gestures.”

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