An endearing little robot named Bandit may be the newest technology to help children with autism better understand social cues and emotional behavior.
Researchers at the Robotics Research Lab at University of Southern California have created studies for children with autism to interact and play with Bandit, a small human-like robot with movable eyebrows and mouth, and motion sensors that allow him to back away or move forward.
The designers hoped to create a balance between human and robot so that he is approachable and engaging without being too realistic or intimidating.
"In autism, there was already anecdotal evidence that children with autism often respond favorably to robots and show social behaviors they do not display with unfamiliar people," Maja Mataric, co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at USC, told ABCNews.com. "Some work had already been done with toy-like robots before we got involved in the research. We were specifically interested in using human-like child-sized robots which would serve as peers, not toys, in the interaction with children."
In initial pilot experiments with the robots, Mataric and colleagues found that children with autism exhibited unexpected social behaviors, including pointing, initiating play, imitating the robot and even showing empathy.
"We were very encouraged by these responses and have been developing new robot capabilities to enrich the interaction," Mataric said.
"One of our successes is the development of software that can analyze the movement of the child interacting with the robot and determining, automatically, whether the child is having a positive, desirableinteraction or not," said David Feil-Sefer, a PhD student who has worked on all the autism studies with Mataric.
Mataric said she first became interested in using technology for developmental treatments when she realized that it could be used to fill the "care gap" in personalized medicine.
Many populations consist of individuals who need one-on-one personalized care, she said, but that care can require many hours per day, for years or even a lifetime.
"Bandit is more simplistic looking with obvious emotional expressions," said Dr. Stefani Hines, developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the Beaumont Health System's Center for Human Development in Michigan. "He's probably less intimidating than human beings for children with autism. We may be able to use him to fade into naturalistic settings."
About one percent of American children ages 3 to 17 have an autism spectrum disorder and it is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, according to the Autism Society.
"Researchers know that to help children with autism, they need to develop new, more effective interventions," said Debra Dunn, outreach director for the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Some children with autism spectrum disorders have an affinity for technology and for machines and may be particularly engaged during this therapy."
Eye tracking research has shown that children with autism prefer looking at objects rather than human faces. They have difficulty understand facial expression and even sometimes recognizing a person's identity. But the lack of experience in reading faces could be contributed tot that difficulty in facial recognition, Dunn said.
But, Dunn warned that, in a world where children with autism tend to retreat into a world of objects, robots may not be the best solution.
"Being engaged while playing with a robot and gaining skills from using it are two different things, and research is needed to test the effectiveness of this and any new intervention," said Dunn.
Mataric and colleagues have already expanded Bandit's assistance beyond children with autism. Researchers said they plan to test Bandit out in other populations, including Alzheimer's patients, stroke survivors and in elderly people living alone.
"We are developing new capabilities for Bandit, such as more sophisticated imitation games, the abilities to positively influence people's behaviors including encouraging them to exercise and socialize (to mitigate isolation and depression), to maintain a healthy diet and to adhere to taking medications," Mataric said. "We are interested in putting Bandit in the playground to have it interact with many children and serve as a catalyst for bringing children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children together in a natural playful and educational setting."