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Robot technology in pioneering autism research trial

Bond University is launching a pioneering trial into the use of robot technology to help socialise children with autism, coinciding with World Autism Awareness Day this Thursday (April 2).

Bond's Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) has just secured the 58 centimetre humanoid robot, developed by Brainary Interactive, for the research, which will involve young children, aged between two and five years, together with older but lower functioning autistic children, around eight to 12 years.

CASD director Professor Vicki Bitsika said it was the first trial of its kind to be undertaken in Australia, with the aim of utilising the robot as a 'bridge' between social isolation and effective interaction for the children.

"The social environment is absolutely chaotic for many young and lower functioning autistic children, as they do not have the prerequisite skills to deal with the high volume of social information they receive from other people," she said.

"We identified the opportunity to act early, not to wait for months or years for young children to learn communication and social interaction using trial and error. Our aim is to reduce the confusion present during social interaction so we can get them connected and learning as fast as possible.

"If they remain isolated and scared by the world around them, they can be fearful of new learning situations, so this trial is extremely important."

Professor Bitsika said Bond was in the initial stages of the trial, which would involve Master of Functional Behaviour Assessment (ASD) students being trained in techniques to use the robot to work with the children.

The robot has been named Ulysses, renowned in mythology as a brave traveller and adventurer.

"We will be using the robot to help teach the children basic communication skills and provide the feedback they need to better understand the social environment, with the next step being interacting in new ways with parents and siblings," said Professor Bitsika.

"There is an increasing interest in using technology to help people on the autism spectrum, but one of our greatest concerns in the field, especially if you look at some examples of how iPads are used, is that we seem to be handing children a piece of technology to interact with but are not taking the second step, where we use that to help integrate them into the social world.

"We want the robot to become that bridge."

Professor Bitsika said the robot could speak, turn its head when a person entered the room, tell stories, sing and dance, but was less intimidating to a child with autism than interacting with a person.

"Basic things like a change in hair colour or clothing can become very distracting to a child with autism, let alone eye contact, social gestures, body stance and orientation - all those signals can overwhelm a child on the spectrum and prevent them from figuring out what is important. This is particularly disruptive during interactions if the child focuses on irrelevant information such as hair colour or body movements to the exclusion of important social signals," she  said.

"Ulysses doesn't blink, uses controlled movements, and is programmed to communicate clearly, so the greatest message a child will get from him is that he is calm and predictable. We believe that, because he will deliver fewer and more comprehensible social signals, children will be less overwhelmed, and better able to relate to him."

Professor Bitsika said 1 in 100 people in Australia were currently considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder, although statistics in other countries showed the rate could be much higher, with 1 in 68 in America and 1 in 36 in Korea diagnosed with the disorder.

"We are not looking at a rare condition anymore," she said.

"Autism is a neurobiological condition that leads to difficulties with functional communication, understanding and interacting with others, with many having restricted interests or developing interests that can be quite unusual, for example, I worked with a five year old who was fascinated by the science of blood disorders.

"The overlay of poor understanding of people and their environment, means people on the spectrum are often highly anxious and highly frustrated and, as they get older, if they don't get consistent help to develop social and learning skills, they are at risk of developing depression.

"It is a multi-faceted condition, so no two children on the spectrum look alike, and early intervention and support is very important."

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