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Robots Helping Diagnose Children with Autism?

Autism Diagnosis Robot

When it comes to our autistic children, we would do anything to help them in life, a thought process which sparked the creation of a robot in Croatia to befriend the autistic children it is meant to cater to. Robots! Out of all the possible solutions to helping children with autism develop their skills, a robot is possibly the perfect solution. Why?

  • Robots can't judge
  • Robots can't have their feelings hurt
  • Robots will act as you wish them to act, with as much or as little sensory stimulation as possible
  • Robots don't expect a child to talk to them
  • Robots won't bully
  • Robots won't hurt children with special needs

You notice my emphasis on the fact that no matter what your child does, how many times he or she has a meltdown, how many ways that poor robot is abused, it is not going to change the way it acts with the child. A robot is constant, a fact that creates a sense of calm for autistic children who absolutely despise change. It will not confuse the children with emotions of its own. Now, this may not be so great for developing social skills, but it is quite dandy for the development of most others.

What exactly is this robot?

A joint project of the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences and its Faculty of Electronics and Computer Sciences, the initiative has a special goal: to use robots to improve the diagnosis and assessment of children with the disorder, a process that until now has been highly complex and subjective. These robots are not meant to replace clinicians, but merely to assist in the process. Whereas the University's website is currently down for maintenance, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty has not missed its chance to report on the amazing contribution such an innovation has to the autism society.

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Autism is a genetic disorder that is often left undiagnosed until later in life, around 5-10 years of age, when the critical years for early intervention have already passed. Many places in the United States will diagnose as young as 2 years old, with Australia pioneering new research that allows for diagnosis from 18 months, when children should have reached certain milestones.

The pet project of the Croatian university is named Rene, an interesting fellow made in France, similar to other projects meant to work with autistic children. "Children with attention-deficit issues, who have trouble making eye contact, react relatively well to the robot," says researcher Maja Cepanec. "They watch it and they are excited about it. So far, our experiences have been relatively positive."

How would it help in autism diagnosis?

"The robot is equipped with a camera, microphones, speakers, and it can record things we might miss," says Cepanec. "It can code a child's vocalizations, his or her closeness to the parent, how many times the child initiates communication, how much eye contact the child makes, and so on."

This much is true, a robot is truly objective. It is engineered to detect things the human perceptions may have trouble with. It does not have the same scruples a human might have, nor will it have doubts concerning a diagnosis. It will not have the children feeling threatened, instead providing an interesting new stimulus to capture their attention. All in all, I believe a robot is a great new use of technological advances for the advancement of correct autism diagnoses.

Image source: Radio Free Europe