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Experts not linked to the project said it was a promising idea.
"Autistic children like things that are made up of different parts, like a robot, so they may process what the robot does more easily than a real person," said Dr. Abigael San, a childhood clinical psychologist in London and spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society.
She thought it was possible that skills children learned with the robot at the preschool could be transferred to their homes or the playground. But San warned that experts and parents shouldn't rely on robots too much. "We don't want children with autism to get too used to playing with robots," she said. "Ultimately, they need to be able to relate to other people."
Kerstin Dautenhahn, the senior researcher at the University of Hertfordshire behind the Kaspar project, said she and colleagues don't have enough data to know if playing with Kaspar has sped up social skills in autistic children. They have published case studies describing improvements in up to a dozen children but no long-term trials.
Researchers say prospects for a comprehensive study depend on funding and teacher-parent participation, since they would have to track the kids for years -- but they would like to carry one out.
She said it might also be possible to modify Kaspar to help children with other developmental problems, like Down syndrome.
Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London, said the robot was valuable in providing children with social interactions, but doubted a machine was necessary.
"What's important for autistic kids is that they learn how to play imaginatively," she said. "And for that, you could use cooking pots or a shoe box."
But Eden Sawczenko's mom says Kaspar's weekly visits seem to be helping.
"Before, Eden would make a smiley face no matter what emotion you asked her to show," she said. "But now she is starting to put the right emotion with the right face. That's really nice to see."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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