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Robot toys to detect early signs of autism or ADHD in infants

lively and interesting conversation between a child and a robot
Photo: Dreamstime

Lauren Klein, a computer science Ph.D. candidate in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has long been interested in tackling healthcare problems. Her latest approach: robot toys.

“I strongly believe that human-robot interaction is a research topic that is promising for the future of healthcare,” said Klein, a member of the USC Interaction Lab.

They are researching ways that robots could make a difference in the lives of children with developmental disabilities. Their work aims to help earlier diagnose children with conditions ranging from learning disabilities to Autism. Earlier diagnoses, experts say, allow for earlier interventions and better outcomes.

In their paper, Klein, Matarić, Smith and Sha propose using a robot toy to interact with an infant to encourage certain behaviors. These behaviors are known as exploratory motor movements — important infant behaviors such as reaching, touching, grasping and kicking that help them learn to control their bodies and interact with their surroundings. Exploratory movements are believed to be important for healthy cognitive, motor and social development.

“Based on this, we can look for infants who make decreased exploratory movements and design and evaluate interactions that could increase these movements,” Klein said. “These interactions are aimed toward children at risk for developmental disabilities, though we anticipate it may be supportive for typically developing infants as well due to the importance of early exploratory motor movements.”

The study observed that once babies made the connection between their own movement and the movement of the robot, they increased their kicking. Babies at risk for developmental disorders, such as ADHD or ASD, may perform differently in this paradigm. They may demonstrate difficulty learning the connection between their movement and the robot response, supporting its use in early detection. Alternatively, they might respond very well to the robot, supporting its use as an early intervention tool.

 

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