Human communication is complex and unpredictable, with body language, facial expressions and other subtle cues coming into the mix, explained Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
A robot or a computer game, on the other hand, can be programmed to be simple and predictable, and that may help kids with ASDs better process the information they are being given, Dawson said.
"Broadly speaking," she said, "we are very excited about the potential role for technology in diagnosing and treating ASDs." But she also agreed with Diehl that the findings are "very preliminary," and that researchers have a lot more to learn about how technology -- robots or otherwise -- fits into ASD therapies.
For the study, Diehl's team used a humanoid robot manufactured by Aldebaran Robotics, which markets the NAO robot for use in education, including special education for kids with ASDs. The robot, which stands at about 2 feet tall, looks like a toy but it's priced more like a small car, Diehl noted.
The NAO H25 "Academic Edition" rings up at about $16,000. (Diehl said the study was funded by government and private grants, not the manufacturer.)
The researchers had 19 kids aged 6 to 13 complete 12 behavioral therapy sessions, where a therapist worked with the child on social skills. Half of the sessions involved the robot, named Kelly, which was wheeled out so the child could practice conversing with her, while the therapist stood by.
"So the child might say, 'Hi Kelly, how are you?'" Diehl explained. "Then Kelly would say, 'Fine. What did you do today?'" During the non-Kelly sessions, another person entered the room and carried on the same conversation with the child that the robot would have.
On average, Diehl's team found, kids made bigger gains from the sessions that included Kelly -- based on both their interactions with their therapists, and their parents' reports.
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