Children with autism are faced with a myriad of social and emotional challenges including delays in expressive and reciprocal speech development. Based on recent data provided by the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin (2013), it is estimated that more than 500,000 children in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Despite the growing rate of prevalence, ASD is difficult to diagnose partly due to the wide range of symptoms that makes the condition more individual than generic. Because early and timely detection is clinically not easy, ASD is often diagnosed only after a child is placed into certain social situations that would require specific set of skills to be ascertained as deficits. As a result, the diagnosis of ASD often entails a lengthy process. This delay in proper diagnosis can often hinder effective treatment and optimal prognosis.
A New Breakthrough
All this may change, however, with the new technique developed by the team of researchers at the University of Missouri. Using three dimensional images and statistical analysis, the team has identified a way to discern specific patterns of facial features and structures which may be common to children with ASD. Once children’s faces have been scanned, the measurements of features along the actual curvature of the faces are compared to the various symptoms displayed. The results of this study have indicated correlations within subgroups based on facial traits and the severity and types of ASD. Researchers are claiming that this new technique in 3D face imaging may further help detect early signs of autism and even delineate the specific genetics responsible for different types of ASD with more progressive approach to treating its various clusters of symptoms (Medgadget, 2015).
In conjunction with the advanced 3D imaging technique, science is offering additional hope for children with ASD and support to their families. The Autism Solution for Kids (ASK) program, launched by Aldebaran Robotics in 2013, has successfully started to pair the little humanoid robot Nao with children with autism. Since then, studies have shown that some children with autism achieved a 30 percent increase in social interactions and better verbal communication when consistently engaged with Nao whose progress could potentially translate into improved interactions with parents and therapists (Falconer, 2013).
The family of Nao seems to be expanding with its new members growing steadily. Zeno, for example, is one of the latest additions. This 2ft-tall robot is unconventional in that its facial expression is much like that of a human. Zeno now has a brother, Milo, with similar characteristics of Zeno. Their human-like faces and expressive features have further demonstrated efficacy in aiding the children’s difficulty comprehending and responding to emotions of other people. Then there is Kaspar who is considered to be an international relative of Zeno and Milo, designed in the UK by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group. Unlike Zeno and Milo, Kaspar has a neutral expression, allowing children to interpret him however they want. Further research is being conducted to investigate if Kaspar’s role may be extended to other developmental conditions such as Down’s Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Tucker, 2015).
These robots are designed to monitor and record feedback by tracking changes in the children’s heart rate associated with various emotions. Parents, teachers, and therapists may program specific lessons facilitating the children’s one-to-one interactions with the robots. Through individualized programs, each child can be guided to respond appropriately to the robot with an iPad, which would regularly gauge difficulties and progress (ibid.).
Researchers believe that the role of these robots could expand drastically in the next several years and become even more instrumental beyond the diagnosis and treatment of autism. With the rapid progression of technology, science is offering new solutions to what has long been masked by a plethora of unknown variables and factors affecting the condition. While the robots may hold important keys to what humans couldn’t tackle before, they may be limited in some ways and hence, not the panacea for all. It also raises questions whether or not they could completely replace or substitute the importance of human connection which is the ultimate privation affecting the children with ASD. These unanswered questions are still very much open to debate and may be the very task to be wrestled with on an ongoing basis.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. October 14, 2013. Autistic disorder. Retrieved from http://www.chw.org/display/PPF/DocID/22122/router.asp
Falconer, J. May 1, 2013. Nao Robot Goes to School to Help Kids With Autism. Retrieved from http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/aldebaran-robotics-nao-robot-autism-solution-for-kids
Medgadget. January 22, 2015. 3D Face Scans That Spot Early Autism and Help Identify Genes Responsible. Retrieved from http://www.medgadget.com/2015/01/3d-face-scans-spot-autism-in-kids-for-early-detection-and-to-help-identify-genes-responsible-video.html
Tucker, E. February 1, 2015. How Robots Are Helping Children with Autism. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/01/how-robots-helping-children-with-autism