Therapy-bots: An Innovative Answer to Autism Treatment
In a world of convenience, one thing that’s always been a difficulty is suitable health care. Epicenters of progressive and innovative treatments are often in large cities that can be hundreds of miles away from the families that actually need attention. For disorders that have no succinct plan of attack, this can result in more fruitless trips to medical centers than productive ones. Furthermore, for families of autistic children that need constant attention and forward-motion for genuine long-term improvement, this can be very emotionally and financially draining.
Autism is a word that is thrown around a lot but not truly understood. Amidst rumors of vaccine-related cases and the anger that speculation has evoked, a pressing need to address the shortage of qualified therapists for the one in 110 children that falls under the “spectrum” of autism must take precedence.
Autism is described as a “spectrum disorder” because it affects each person differently and to a varying degree. The main symptoms seen across the board include difficulties with spoken language, motor skills, and social interaction. People afflicted with the disorder tend to fixate on objects and details and have difficulties connecting with other people on any social level.
There is no known cause of autism that is singularly responsible for the variety of disabilities that are included under the “umbrella.” There are, however, many types of biomedical and psychological treatments currently being used.
Sensory integration is a form of autism therapy that helps children become familiar with certain situations that might otherwise be distressing to them. It uses a combination of interactive technologies such as sight, sound, and touch to help establish a higher baseline of normalcy that the child can tolerate, in turn making the child more peaceful and at ease with his or her environment. In order for autism to be treated most effectively, it must be diagnosed as early as possible so that treatment may begin immediately.
The gap in the amount of kids that can be treated by qualified therapists is hoped to be addressed by taking therapy to the next level in using robots to interact with the children. The University of Southern California has taken sensory integration therapy, in combination with robotics, to produce a robot called Bandit that has the ability to make simple facial expressions and movements coupled with a complex decision-making ability in response to the child’s behavior.
In order to reach the children on a level they are most comfortable with, Bandit takes what’s known as a “humanoid” form. If he were to be designed too human-like, it would defeat the purpose of his existence since autistic children prefer machines over humans due to their predictability.
Bandit itself can only use pre-programmed visual cues, or cues read by an engineer that can also manually operate the robot, to react to the child and monitor his/her behavior to accurately respond. It also uses cameras and a microphone that can record a compiled video if the child is particularly agitated. Then the video can be reviewed at a later time with parents and doctors to determine the cause of distress.
MIT has developed a wristband that can be worn which would provide added feedback on the emotional state of the child. This in combination with any robot on the market used for autism therapy would make it an even more efficient tool since it could read the heart-rate, perspiration level, and breathing rate of the child and feed that information into the robot for a more tailor-made response. When used in conjunction with a superior monitoring system, such as the wristband sensor system, this innovative robotic therapy becomes a completely personalized autism treatment plan for each individual child that is afflicted.
Temple University has been doing research on their own robot called KOALA that uses fuzzy logic to store behavioral and social cues over time. With this small amount of artificial intelligence, the robot can personalize itself for the child to which it belongs.
The developer of Bandit, Maja Mataric, wants to put a Bandit in every autistic child’s home for about the cost of a laptop within the next decade. The complexity of Bandit and the need to make it as benign as possible to the children in which it hopes to treat will make an inexpensive price tag difficult. The many moving parts on the face coupled with a quiet motor to prevent distress in the child are cited as the main problem areas for cost.
Doctoral student, Marek Michalowski, at Carnegie Mellon University, and his mentor Dr. Hideki Kozima of Miyagi University in Japan, disagree with other labs about the degree of humanization that therapy robots should have. He believes that in order to truly connect with the child, the robots have to be much less humanoid and more cartoonish to account for the autistic tendency to prefer objects over people. His mentor’s creation, Keepon, is a bubbly little guy whose only movements are to bop and dance around on his platform. As he only has two small camera eyes and a microphone nose, there are no external moving arms, fingers, eyebrows, lips, etc., to drive up the cost.
Considering that the average lifetime cost of caring for an autistic child is between $3.5 and $5 million dollars, the more inexpensive the treatment robot, the better. One amazing benefit that cannot be overlooked is the ability to bring the robot home with the child no matter where the family lives, making long commutes to hospitals and treatment centers in larger cities less frequent.
This is a location-independent treatment option that can revolutionize the way we manage autism by putting therapy more in the hands of families and friends than in the hands of doctors. This has the distinct advantage of keeping children more at ease around those they most trust and love.
By automating the therapy via robotics, we have the potential to reach children that would have never received proper treatment in the past. Not only that, but the human faults that we all encompass – temper, lapses in attention spans, laziness – will no longer be an issue. Therapy-bots like Bandit and Keepon have the ability to maintain decorum, not lose their tempers (because they don’t have them), and keep working until the job is done. Or until their batteries need to be replaced.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Clint JCL