Niagara Gazette

Features

August 5, 2012

Researchers use "toy" robot to gain insight into autistic children

Niagara Gazette — FORT WORTH, Texas — Anthony Arceri stood in front of Zeno, a friendly, child-size robot that was ready to play.

“What is your favorite food?” Zeno asked Anthony, a 7-year-old decked out in a black outfit covered with sensors.

“Chocolate milk and french fries,” Anthony responded.

“I love chocolate milk,” Zeno said.

When Zeno raised his arm, so did Anthony. When Zeno rubbed his stomach, so did Anthony.

While the interaction between Anthony and the robot — which stands about 2 feet tall, can move its arms and has lifelike facial expressions — may seem like just high-tech fun, researchers hope it holds the key to early diagnosis and treatment of autism.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, the Dallas Autism Treatment Center, Texas Instruments and Hanson Robotics are collaborating on a one-year project that is funded in part by a $100,000 grant from the Texas Medical Research Collaborative.

Nicoleta Bugnariu, associate professor at the health science center and a physical therapist/neuroscientist, said it is important to diagnose autism during motor skill development, which precedes language development.

Autism spectrum disorders are not often diagnosed until a child is speaking.

“If we can look at a marker prior to language development, then we can diagnose children earlier and intervene earlier,” Bugnariu said.

Pamela Rainville, Anthony’s mother, said she hopes the research will give doctors and other professionals additional information that will not only help teach her son how to interact but also provide him and others with life skills.

“We just hope that by doing this research, that it will help someone else,” Rainville said.

Dan Popa, an associate professor of electrical engineering at UTA and the lead investigator, has been involved in robotic research for 20 years.

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