Autism in children, rehabilitation is done with a robot (which stimulates them to put themselves in its shoes) – WWN

Autism in children, rehabilitation is done with a robot (which stimulates them to put themselves in its shoes) – WWN

Of Ruggiero Corcella

iCub, the humanoid robot from Iit Genoa, entered the Boggiano Pico Center of the Opera Don Orione with a specific clinical protocol. And the results of the experiment demonstrated an increase in social skills in children

It will be that iCub’s facial features and way of moving are very similar to those of a child. The fact is that the humanoid robot of the Italian Institute of Technology – IIT immediately inspired sympathy and trust in the young patients (even their parents) between 5 and 6 years old with autism spectrum disorder engaged in a program of rehabilitation in the Boggiano Pico Center, a center specialized in treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders of the Opera Don Orione of Genoa.

So using iCub within a real clinical protocol, it has proven effectiveas they explain in an article published in the magazine Autism Research the researchers of the Social cognition in Human-Robot Interaction laboratory, coordinated by Agnieszka Wykowska of the IIT, and of the Boggiano Pico Centre.

What is autism spectrum disorder

The autism spectrum disorder a heterogeneous set of neurodevelopmental disorders that begins during developmental age, characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction. Based on epidemiological research conducted to date, Autism affects between 1% and 2% of the world’s population. In Italy, people affected by autism are between 600 thousand and 1 million 200 thousand.

At least 4,000 individuals out of the 393 thousand new born in 2022 in our country, they will probably be diagnosed during their developmental age. 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.

What iCub does during sessions

The first part of the trial concluded in autumn 2021 e involved a group of 45 girls and boys already included in the therapeutic path of the Boggiano Pico Center, who interacted with the iCub robot by playing a series of games with the aim of developing their social skills. The activity carried out with the boys and girls was specifically designed by the Wykowska team and the Boggiano Pico Center team to make the interaction between robots and children simple, safe and effective.

During the session, iCub 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 face, while the child is encouraged to put himself in iCub’s shoes and identify the image observed by the robotthus training the ability to identify with the other’s point of view.

The concrete effects of rehabilitation

People on the autism spectrum they may in fact have difficulty empathizing and understanding other people’s points of viewskills underlying many fundamental social skills that so-called neurotypical people acquire spontaneously during growth, but which in people with autism could be altered and can be trained with therapy. The results of this first experiment indicate an increase in social skills in girls and boys involved in rehabilitation with iCub, among the first humanoid robots to enter a clinical center with its own rehabilitation protocol.

Rehabilitation robotics not new, but it is often done in the laboratory, not in a clinical context, and consists of brief interactions that are not repeated over time. In this case however, the activities with iCub were harmonized with the traditional rehabilitation protocols foreseen for the children involved, and carried out continuously for a period of two months explains Davide GhiglinoIIT researcher and first author of the study. A special room has been set up at the Boggiano Pico center, and the activities with the robot take place in harmony with traditional rehabilitation protocols. The uniqueness of our activity lies in this integration: an advanced technology is harmonized with a healthcare context, and equipped with a protocol defined by researchers and healthcare professionals, he adds.

Platform used for research purposes

What does it mean? That from now on iCub is part of the rehabilitation program offered, for all intents and purposes? iCub a prototype platform, and to this day still used for research purposes – explains Ghiglino -. To be “offered”, a health/welfare service must be recognized by the competent authorities. We offer” (in the sense that together with the Boggiano Pico Center we “promote”) the experimental activity (authorized by the local ethics commission) to any family who wants to try the protocol and is already involved in local public care pathways.

Interacting with a humanoid robot is more natural

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

important to underline the potential of technologies as new tools at the service of therapists, which in any case remain central in every rehabilitation process – says Agnieszka 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 first hand.

The next step: go to a pizzeria or ice cream shop

The robot does not replace human activity in any way that the therapist carries out with children – he underlines Federica Floris, psychologist and project coordinator for the Opera Don Orione -, but the research we have carried out shows that it can be an effective and additional support tool for the team. especially in the strengthening of behaviors that can encourage the development of fundamental social skills in everyday life. In the coming years – continues Floris – the objective is to develop new protocols that can work on increasingly complex and specific social skillsusable in various life contexts, such as nursery, school, playground and family.

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

The reaction of children and families

The experiment seems to have thrilled both children and families. All the children welcomed it with curiosity the robot
many continue to ask when they will be able to play with iCub again even at the end of the protocol in which they were involved – says Ghiglino -. From a qualitative point of view, all the children involved participated (obviously the first impact was the enthusiasm for the novelty, but even months later the interest remained very high). Let’s remember that we are talking about a very broad spectrum, many children who participate are non-verbal, but also from the returns of the staff and families they were all very satisfied.

And the parents? Generally speaking, in all the meetings held with parents, the response was positive. Some parents have reported anecdotes to healthcare personnel relating to returns that usually non-communicative children made at home after playing with the robot. However, the proposal was received with interest, we involve the children only after having explained to the parents what the activities consist of, and at the moment all the families who were asked to participate have agreed.

Chiara’s story

Chiara (her fictional name) is a 10 year old girl diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, and since 2017 in charge of the Boggiano Pico Center, a center specialized in the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders of the Opera Don Orione. Chiara, who in particular manifests difficulty in establishing relationships and sharing her emotions, began her rehabilitation process with speech therapy and neuropsychomotricity, and currently participates in psychoeducational activities.

Chiara has been involved in training with iCub since the beginning. In quantitative terms, the tests conducted on Chiara post training demonstrate an important and constant improvement in the Theory of Mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to others), while from a qualitative point of view the training with iCub had positive effects on Chiara’s ability to share her experiences with others, therefore on her relationship skills.

And this is what Chiara’s mother thinks: Since we had the diagnosis we tried to stimulate Chiara as much as possible. We started immediately with therapies, speech therapy and psychomotor skills and integrated it with as many activities as possible such as sports, music therapy and trips. For this reason we agreed to participate in the study, the more experiences Chiara has, the more she improves.

How did the little girl react? Chiara reacted immediately with great enthusiasm and curiosity. After each meeting with iCub Chiara wants to tell what she did with the robot. For her, a new friend to get to know, she always asks him many questions. It’s difficult for Chiara to put herself in other people’s shoes, to understand their point of view and emotions, but with iCub all this is easier for her. Chiara improved a lot in interacting with her friends and classmates.

In light of the results obtained, do you think that interaction with a robot like iCub could become therapy? I believe that as far as autism is concerned, there is still a lot to understand and therefore I think it is right that research should be carried out in various fields. In this case, I think that for a child/young person with a spectrum disorder, interacting with a robot is easier, less stressful: even if iCub has a beautiful face and two beautiful eyes, keeping your gaze is easy. So based on our experience, I believe that interaction with a robot like iCub can be of great help in therapy. training to then be able to interact with others.

November 14, 2023 (modified November 14, 2023 | 10:08)

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