New research suggests that robots could offer a remarkable tool to help children with disabilities master social skills.

Using a modified version of a so-called humanoid robot, researchers at Vanderbilt University say they’ve found that children with autism respond positively to the two-foot-tall device, which could one day supplement time spent with a human therapist.

For the study, autism researchers and mechanical engineers augmented an existing robot with webcams to track a child’s movement and create an “intelligent environment” allowing the device to respond to the scenario. Programmed with prompts like “look over here,” the robot is able to make head and hand gestures and, much like a therapist, it instructs a user to do certain tasks and praises a job well done.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

When researchers compared the responses of a dozen children ages 2 to 5 — half of whom had autism and half who were typically developing — they found that kids with the developmental disorder paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions nearly as well as those from a real therapist.

The results of what researchers say is the first real-world test of the effectiveness of what’s known as intelligent adaptive systems in those with autism were published this month in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

“A therapist does many things that robots can’t do,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt who worked on the study. “But a robot-centered system could provide much of the repeated practice that is essential to learning. The cost of robotic systems like this will continue to come down in the future so it should easily pay for itself by supplementing human intervention.”

Now Sarkar and his colleagues say they are working to expand the robot’s capabilities to address additional skills development including imitation learning, role playing and sharing.