Professor Maja Mataric and PhD student David Feil-Seifer, both specialists in Socially Assisted Robotics (SAR), say that they are trying to develop a robot "control architecture" that will tailor robot interactions to the specific needs of ASD children to help therapists treat their condition.
The colourful bubble-blowing wheeled robot used in the initial study, reported in the June Conference on Interaction Design for Children with Special Needs in Chicago, had two settings.
In one, it carried on its rolling and bubble blowing on its own internal schedule, regardless of the behaviour of the child. In the other, "when the child pushes a button, then the bubbles blow."
The study watched the children and observed differences.
"We found that the behaviour of the robot affects the social behaviour of a child (both human-human interaction and human-robot interaction): social behaviour with a contingent robot was greater than with a random robot," said the researchers.
"Total speech went from 39.4 to 48.4 utterances, robot speech from 6.2 to 6.6 utterances, and parent speech from 17.8 to 33 utterances. Total robot interactions went from 43.42 to 55.31, with button pushes increasing from 14.69 to 21.87 and other robot interactions going from 24.11 to 28. Total directed interactions (interactions that were clearly directed at either the robot or the parent) went up from 62.75 to 89.47. Generally, when the robot was acting contingently, the child was more sociable," they added.
Although the initial study only involved four children, Mataric believes that it clearly demonstrated the ability of robots to actively engage with ASD children, and "offer a doorway into their attention."
Mataric says that a much more extensive follow-up with more subjects is already in progress, in collaboration with Los Angeles Childrens Hospital and the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange.
She has revealed that the research teams are using rolling robots with horns and bubble blowers used in the initial study as well as humanoid robots capable of smiles and other expression.
According to her, the researchers will analyse documents, and store every interaction.
She adds that the researchers will try to understand what works to support an interaction, and change it to make it work better.
"I am gratified by these preliminary results. I believe that Socially Assistive Robotics has a part to play in helping families, both the affected children and their parents and siblings," she said.