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New hope for autistic children comes in the form of a robot


New hope for autistic children comes in the form of a robot

Benefit for families who would have access to such technology, but first kids must be properly diagnosed

Senior science reporter

Children on the autism spectrum have a new friend to help improve their social skills, and that friend is not one you’d expect: it’s a robot.
The new study, led by Yale University’s Brian Scassellati, paired autistic children with an autonomous robot over the course of a month. The therapy delivered by the robot was done with the 12 children (ages six to 12) in their own homes with a caregiver present, and involved “activities on emotional storytelling, perspective-taking and sequencing” for half an hour every day over the month of engagement.
The robot “encouraged engagement, adjusted the difficulty of the day’s activities to the child’s past performance, and modelled positive social skills, like eye contact”, said the researchers.
The results, published in Science Robotics, were remarkable: the children showed “improved interactions with adults – and continued to demonstrate improvement even after the therapy sessions were completed”.
So how is this groundbreaking?
It is certainly not the first study to use robot-human interactions in therapy for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, but the key lies in the words “for a month”.Up until now, studies have evaluated “short, isolated robot-human interactions in controlled laboratory settings, often involving small sample sizes – resulting in insufficient data for consideration in the clinic”.
This time around, after the month-long intervention, researchers went through a whopping 127 hours of video and audio data, and looked at interaction logs collected from the therapy sessions.
Being in the home setting helped a lot, and the caregivers added to the data by reporting on the children “engaging in more social behavior, such as eye contact and responding to communication, with not only the caregivers themselves, but others as well”.
So what does this mean for SA?
Right now, the study is simply a kernel of hope for families in the future who would have access to such technology. For many others, there are bigger and more immediate fish to fry – such as getting a diagnosis in the first place, and breaking down barriers that create ostracisation.
Last September, when the International Society for Autism Research held a meeting in SA, it was the first of its kind ever on the continent. Approximately 300 researchers, therapists and family members from more than 25 countries, mostly African, met for three days.And, although the meeting in itself was an achievement and allowed for cross-pollination of studies and useful interventions, some worrying facts emerged: that studies which test for autism need to be adapted to an African context; that many kids in Africa on the spectrum do not have access to suitable schools; and that many such children, tragically, are kept hidden from the public eye, sometimes even tied to chairs at home, and very frequently undiagnosed.
With SA’s major socioeconomic gap, some ASD children are diagnosed early and have all the help they can get. Others are not even diagnosed, making it difficult to pin down the stats.
But, when Africa Check went in search of those elusive numbers, a few clues emerged: University of Cape Town professor Petrus De Vries said “we don’t really know the numbers” because no study has been done to determine the total number of cases here.
But, he added, “However, the global rates are in the region of 1% to 2% and we have no reason to believe that it would be any less here.”
Vicky Lamb of Autism SA told Africa Check that estimates are around one million in the country but that we lacked enough professionals who can make a diagnosis. This shortage of trained professionals means “only some of the South Africans with autism will actually be diagnosed.”

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