The Effects of Robot-Child Interactions on Social Attention and Verbalization Patterns of Children with Autism Between 5 and 12 Years of Age

Friday, May 15, 2015: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
C. Korgaonkar1, S. Srinivasan2, C. O'Hara1, M. Kaur2, T. Gifford3 and A. N. Bhat1,2,3, (1)Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, (2)Department of Physical Therapy, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, (3)Center for Health, Intervention & Prevention, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
Background:   Social communication delays are primary impairments of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Clinicians often address these impairments during stationary tabletop play, whereas we propose that whole body movements within a group setting also have the potential to enhance social communication skills. Robot-child interactions have been used to facilitate social communication skills such as social attention, imitation, and verbalization in children with ASDs (Robins et al., 2005, Duquette et al., 2008). However, robots have not been used to facilitate interpersonal synchrony during whole body movements in autism.

Objectives: In this study, we evaluated the effects of a novel, embodied intervention involving robot-child interactions on the social attention and verbalization skills of children with ASDs.

Methods: 24 children with ASDs between 5 and 12 years of age were observed for 10 weeks with the pretest and the posttest conducted in the first and last weeks respectively. Children were matched on age and level of functioning and then randomly assigned to either the “robotic” or the “academic” intervention group. Each child received 8 weeks of training (2 session/week). In the robotics group, children engaged in whole body action imitation games with a 23-inch humanoid robot, Nao, an expert trainer, and an adult model. In the academic group, children engaged in tabletop, academic and fine motor activities with the trainer and the model. We coded an early, a mid, and a late training session for percent duration of attention to the robot, to social partners, to objects, and towards elsewhere. We also coded for percent of time spent vocalizing or verbalizing to the robot, to self, or to social partners during each session.

Results:   In the early session, children in the robot group spent maximum time attending to the robot compared to all other attention targets (Robot: 47.51 (12.87), objects: 10.81 (3.35), social partners: 22.69 (7.12), elsewhere: 18.99 (9.69)). However, across training, there was a reduction in the attention towards the robot with a concurrent increase in attention to elsewhere in the room suggesting progressive boredom with the activities (Robot – Early: 47.51 (12.87), Late: 34.28 (12.02); Elsewhere – Early: 18.99 (9.69), Late: 30.52 (9.88)). Overall, the robot group engaged in greater social attention episodes compared to the academic group across sessions. In contrast, the academic group spent greater time attending to non-social objects across all sessions. In terms of verbalization, the academic context afforded greater levels of social verbalization compared to the robot group in the early session (Robot: 5.79 (4.69), Academic: 14.11 (10.04)). However, the robot group demonstrated a small increase in social verbalization across training sessions (Early: 5.79 (4.69), Late: 11.68 (7.80)).

Conclusions: Although standard academic contexts promote social verbalization skills in children with ASDs, they afford sustained bouts of non-social attention towards objects/supplies used. Our study suggests that robot-mediated contexts promoting whole-body imitation and synchrony are promising tools to promote social attention and verbalization in children with ASDs. However, future research should be directed at developing activities that are meaningful, enjoyable, and that can sustain children’s interest across training sessions.