Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that impacts many systems in the body, from neurological aspects to physical comorbidities. Children with autism often endure sensory overload, may be nonverbal, and may have difficulty understanding and relaying emotions. These combined experiences can cause the child heightened stress when interacting with others. As the rate of autism diagnosis continues to rise, there is an urgent need to develop mechanisms to help autistic children cope with exciting or unfamiliar situations.
Deep touch pressure therapy, the standard method of intervention in the American special needs education system, uses tools such as hand brushes or weighted vests to reduce stress. However, these tools provide the children neither with control over the contact nor with opportunities to socialize. Animal-assisted intervention can improve the stress levels and behavior of autistic children. However, live animal companions are not always feasible given a number of factors, such as the resources of caregivers. Robot therapy also shows promise - children with ASD appear to respond more favorably to robots than human strangers, possibly due to the robot's safely predictable behavior.
Our research objective is to test the hypothesis that an appropriately designed robot animal can reduce stress in children with autism and empower them to engage in social interaction.
NAO, a commercially-available humanoid research robot, is enclosed inside a soft koala suit to serve as the initial robot animal prototype. The robot animal (which has been named ‘HERA’) will use a system of custom tactile sensors to identify and react to users' touches. As autism is a spectrum with low to high functioning patients, HERA’s personality and behavior will be customizable to generate reactions to tactile interactions that are appropriate to the user.