How Kelly the robot helps kids with autism

The $14,000 robot is not just a toy, study author says

University of Notre Dame researchers say that autistic children undergoing behavioral therapy tended to do better when one of their therapists was a two-foot-tall robot named Kelly.

The $14,000 robot looks like a toy, but can be programmed to engage in conversations and respond to novel questions, the researchers say. Although such humanoid robots are already being marketed for autism therapy, there has been little evidence to back up their use, according to the researchers.

For a study presented this week at the conference of the International Society for Autism Research, researchers monitored 19 children with autism through 12 behavioral therapy sessions. Kelly was included in six of those sessions.

In sessions with Kelly, the child might say, "Hi Kelly, how are you?" and Kelly would respond, "Fine, what did you do today?" lead author Joshua Diehl explains. In sessions without Kelly, the therapist would carry on the same conversation.

Parents reported to researchers that the children interacted with family members more at home after the sessions with Kelly. "There was one child who, when his dad came home from work, asked him how his day was," Diehl says, adding that the child had "never done that before."

"Going into this study, we were skeptical [of the robot's effectiveness]," Diehl told HealthDay, adding, "We found that, to our surprise, the kids did better when the robot was added."

Diel told the Wall Street Journal that children with autism may perceive social interaction with humans as complex and unpredictable, while interacting with a robot is simpler and more predictable. Diel noted that the findings are very preliminary, but promising.

Geraldine Dawson—chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks—says, "[W]e are very excited about the potential role for technology in diagnosing and treating" a spectrum of autism disorders (Wang, Wall Street Journal, 5/1; Norton, HealthDay, 5/1).

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