British robot helping autistic children
with their social skills
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[April 01, 2017]
By Matthew J. Stock
LONDON (Reuters) - "This is nice, it
tickles me," Kaspar the social robot tells four-year-old Finn as they
play together at an autism school north of London.
Kaspar, developed by the University of Hertfordshire, also sings song,
imitates eating, plays the tambourine and combs his hair during their
sessions aimed at helping Finn with his social interaction and
If Finn gets too rough, the similarly sized Kaspar cries: "Ouch, that
hurt me." A therapist is on hand to encourage the child to rectify his
behavior by tickling the robot's feet.
Finn is one of around 170 autistic children that Kaspar has helped in a
handful of schools and hospitals over the last 10 years.
But with approximately 700,000 people in Britain on the autism spectrum,
according to the National Autistic Society who will mark World Autism
Day on Sunday, the university want Kaspar to help more people.
"Our vision is that every child in a school or a home or in a hospital
could get a Kaspar if they wanted to," Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of
artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, told
Achieving that goal will largely depend on the results of a two-year
clinical trial with the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, which, if
successful, could see Kaspar working in hospitals nationwide.
TRACKS, an independent charity and specialist early years center for
children with autism in Stevenage, have seen positive results from
working with Kaspar, who sports a blue cap and plaid shirt for play
"We were trying to teach a little boy how to eat with his peers. He
usually struggled with it because of his anxiety issues," said deputy
principal Alice Lynch.
[to top of second column]
Harrison, 5, who is autistic, plays with Kaspar, a child-sized
humanoid robot developed at the University of Hertfordshire to
interact and help improve the lives of children with autism, in
Stevenage, Britain January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Matthew Stock
"We started doing it with Kaspar and he really, really enjoyed feeding
Kaspar, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. Now he's
started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers. So
things like that are just a massive progression."
Many children with autism find it hard to decipher basic human
communication and emotion so Kaspar's designers avoided making him too
lifelike and instead opted for simplified, easy to process features.
Autism support groups have been impressed.
"Many autistic people are drawn to technology, particularly the
predictability it provides, which means it can be a very useful means of
engaging children, and adults too," Carol Povey, director of the
National Autistic Society's Centre for Autism, told Reuters.
"This robot is one of a number of emerging technologies which have the
potential to make a huge difference to people on the autism spectrum."
(Writing by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Alison Williams)
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