Robots Could Improve Socialization Skills for Children with Autism

April 02, 2020

Artificial Intelligence Can Augment Precious Therapists’ Time

A small robot, shaped like a bird, is perched on a desk in front of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the child plays math games on a tablet, the friendly bird provides instruction and feedback–essentially coaching the child until each computer game is completed. This scenario is not a new plot line from an upcoming science fiction film. It’s current research out of the University of Southern California (USC) that aims to use artificial intelligence to help children with autism interact with family, friends, schoolmates and teachers.

This new technology is called Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR). USC is using SAR to augment one-on-one therapeutic intervention, which is not always accessible to families for many reasons, including location and affordability. Even for families who can access individualized therapy, most one-on-one sessions run only for an hour or two, leaving the child with a large amount of time unsupported. SAR was designed to fill that gap.

A video from the National Science Foundation details how SAR is used for children with ASD. During a SAR session, important audio and video data are collected which details the child’s eye gazing and verbal responses in order to measure his engagement. That data is analyzed making it possible for SAR to be programmed to tailor its interactions with each child and his unique needs accordingly. This leads to “personalized learning.”

Stat News reports the researchers at USC found that when children with ASD listen to the robot give instructions and feedback and then respond to those instructions, the child improved overall in social interaction. Since social skills challenges are one of the hallmarks of autism, SAR is showing a great deal of promise to help these children relate to people in their lives.


Shomik Jain, Balasubramanian Thiagarajan, Zhonghao Shi, Caitlyn Clabaugh, Maja J. Mataric. Modeling engagement in long-term, in-home socially assistive robot interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders. Science Robotics. 26 February 2020. Vol. 5. Issue 39.

National Science Foundation. Socially assistive robots for children on the autism spectrum Science Nation—Science Nation. October 28, 2018.

Shafaq Zia. Researchers develop AI-based intervention for kids with autism. Stat News. February 26, 2020.

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