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Autism, the humanoid robot that helps the clinical rehabilitation of children

Can a humanoid robotwithin a clinical context, successfully integrate into the rehabilitation process of children with diagnosis of autism? Apparently yes. A team from the laboratory demonstrated this Social cognition in Human-Robot Interactioncoordinated by Agnieszka Wykowska fromItalian Institute of Technology – IITand a team of Boggiano Pico Centera center specialized in the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders of the Opera Don Orione Genoa.

In an article in the magazine Autism Research the experts have in fact demonstrated for the first time in the world the effectiveness of a humanoid robot in a context of this type. Not, therefore, in the laboratory but integrated into a clinical rehabilitation process. This is obviously the well-known robot iCub of IIT, a platform around which the IIT has been carrying out research in the various areas of interest of the institute for a long time.

The autism spectrum disorder is a heterogeneous set of neurodevelopmental disorders that begins during developmental age, characterized by communication deficits and in thesocial interaction. Based on epidemiological research conducted to date, autism strikes between 1% and 2% of the world’s population. In Italy, people affected by autism are between 600 thousand and 1.2 million. At least 4 thousand individuals out of the 393 thousand new born in 2022 in our country will probably be diagnosed with disorders of this type during their developmental age.

The results of this first, pioneering experiment indicate a increase in social skills in girls and boys involved in rehabilitation with iCub, which thus became the first humanoid robot to have ever entered a clinical center and to be equipped with a own rehabilitation protocol. The collaboration between IIT and Opera Don Orione began in October 2020 with the aim of putting the most advanced technology at the service of society in a clinical rehabilitation context. The first part of the experimentation concluded in autumn 2021 and involved a group of 45 girls and boys already included in the therapeutic path of the Boggiano Pico Centre, who interacted with the iCub robot which involved them in a series of games with the aim of developing their social skills.

People on the autism spectrum may in fact have difficulty empathizing and understand other people’s points of viewskills underlying many fundamental social skills that so-called neurotypical people acquire spontaneously during growth, but which could be altered in people with autism and which however can be trained with therapy.

«Rehabilitation robotics is not new but is often done in the laboratory, not in a clinical context, and consists of short interactions that are not repeated over time – he explains Davide GhiglinoIIT researcher and first author of the study – in this case however, the activities with iCub were harmonized with traditional rehabilitation protocols planned for the children involved, and carried out continuously for a period of two months».

Among the results, the research team observed that in autistic children there is a natural tendency to interact with humanoid robots. Interacting with another human being could in fact provide a quantity of stimuli that is too high and difficult to interpret for individuals diagnosed with autism. iCub allows you to overcome this problem because it is capable of fragment complex human behavior in many parts and repeat only some of them, in order to reduce the stimuli provided to the subject.

«It is important to underline the potential of technologies as new tools at the service of therapists, who remain central in every rehabilitation process – continues Wykowska – designing collaborative activities between child and robot allows the therapist to explore new intervention techniques, immersive and engagingthrough which the child can experience himself firsthand.”

A moment of rehabilitation therapy (Photo: L. Taverna/IIT)

The activity carried out with the boys and girls was specifically designed by Wykowska’s team and the Boggiano Pico Center team to make the interaction between robots and children simple, safe and effective. During the iCub type session he supports the therapists in classic clinical activities and interacts based on the unique skills of each child. Specifically, during training the robot manipulates a foam cube with a different image on each facewhile the child is encouraged to put himself in iCub’s shoes and identify the image observed by the robot, thus training the ability to identify with the other’s point of view.

«The robot – he says Federica Florispsychologist and project coordinator for the Opera Don Orione – it does not replace human activity in any way that the therapist carries out with the children but the research we have conducted has shown that it can be an effective and additional support tool for the team, especially in strengthening behaviors that can encourage the development of fundamental social skills in everyday life. In the next few years the goal is develop new protocols who can work on increasingly complex and specific social skills, which can be used in various life contexts, such as nursery school, school, the playground and the family”.

The next step, already underway, is the creation of further rehabilitation training in settings that simulate specific environments and circumstances, for example a pizzeria or an ice cream shop, where the child can train specific social skills that can then be replicated in everyday life contexts.

The project fits into the context of Center for Human Technologies of the Italian Institute of Technology (CHT-IIT@Erzelli) which, also thanks to the support of the Liguria Region, was created to connect with the clinical and hospital realities of the area to transfer the results of research into real contexts leading to concrete impacts on the health of people.

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Source: Vanity Fair

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