Joint attention is a crucial social skill that children along the autism spectrum often have difficulty mastering. Joint attention is the ability for a child to share the same focus as another person. This shared focus includes looking at the same item, and sharing the same intentions as the other person. The ability to master this skill has strong implications for language development, bonding and empathy for the autistic child.
In the past, learning this skill often meant hours of intense specialised and individualised instruction with the child and their teachers, parents and other caregivers. Now, there is a new tool to help children along the autism spectrum to master this critically important skill – interactive robots. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in the United States have developed a humanoid robot that can be programmed to instruct and adapt with children as they learn about and practice this skill. In fact, research shows that children along the autism spectrum may be able to learn and practice this skill better with the robot than with a human counterpart.
This unique and exciting breakthrough was recently discussed in an article in the March edition of IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering. Building upon the success that researchers have made with using the robot to teach joint attention skill, the researchers plan to modify the robot’s programming to teach children additional skills such as role playing, sharing, and imitation learning. The researchers will then conduct studies to see if the robot is as successful at helping children to learn and practice these additional skills as it was in teaching joint attention.
While the researchers stress that the robot will never be able to take the place of human assessment and interaction with children, this robot does seem to be a promising tool that can help children acquire the skills that they need in a fun and stimulating way.
What do you think of the idea? Will it work?