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Health Beat: Autism help: A robot for Robbie

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 01 2013 09:53:38 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 01 2013 04:55:31 PM CDT

Parents cherish bedtime stories and games with their little ones, but children with autism can't always focus during those special times.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -

Parents cherish bedtime stories and games with their little ones, but children with autism can't always focus during those special times. Now, researchers are learning how robots could play a role in helping these kids learn how to pay attention.

With glowing eyes and a high-tech voice, a robot grabs the attention of Robbie Pruitt.

Robbie has autism. Researchers at Vanderbilt University are using a robot to teach him how to focus on people and objects in his environment.

"Try to get a kid to clean up when he can't pay attention to what's on the floor. It's difficult," said Sabrina Pruitt, Robbie’s mother.

Kids with autism seem to be drawn to technology, so robots could be key in teaching social interaction, said Dr. Zachary Warren, clinical psychologist and autism researcher at Vanderbilt University.

"Children with autism are spending much more time looking at the robot than they would be a human counterpart,” said Warren.

The robot directs Robbie to look at a wall monitor. Smart sensors detect that Robbie followed the prompt, so he is rewarded with a video. The robot also directs Robbie’s gaze by pointing.

"We’ve seen that the children are responding very accurately to the robot prompt," Warren said.

Tiring work, but Robbie’s parents said his interaction skills are improving. 

In a study published this year, researchers found that children with autism paid more attention to the robot than the human therapist and followed its instructions almost as well.

Researchers said robots could ease the workload of autism therapists, and they hope to study whether robots are a cost effective way to accelerate other learning skills, as well.

DOWNLOAD and VIEW research summary

DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. Zachary Warren about help for people with autism