A Humanoid Robot as Assistive Technology for Encouraging Social Interaction Skills in Children with Autism
Interactive robots, virtual environments and other computer based technologies are increasingly applied in rehabilitation therapy and education. The research presented in this thesis investigates the potential use of a humanoid robot as assistive technology for encouraging social interaction skills specifically in children with autism. The research focuses on ways in which the humanoid robot can engage autistic children in simple interactive activities such as turn-taking and imitation games, and how the robot can assume the role of social mediator, encouraging the children to interact with the robot, with each other and with co-present adults. The research also investigates which robot design (in terms of appearance) best facilitates these interactions. The approach that was developed in the research adopted a longitudinal repeated measure design, carried out over a long period of time. Based on the video material documenting the interactions, several quantitative and qualitative analyses were conducted. The quantitative analyses showed an increase in the duration of pre-defined interactional behaviours toward the later trials. The quantitative analysis in regard to the robot’s appearance clearly indicated, by their response, the children’s preference for interaction with a plain featureless robot over interaction with a human-like robot. Qualitative analyses in the form of case-study evaluations of segments of trials are presented, observing the children’s activities in their interactional context. Some of the analyses focus on joint attention skills which play a fundamental role in human development and social understanding. In the setting used, joint attention emerges from natural and spontaneous interactions between the children and an adult and between the children and other children. The analyses revealed further aspects of social interaction skills (such as imitation, ii turn-taking, role-switch, body-orientation) and communicative competence that the children showed. The results show how children exhibited interaction skills where the robot, assuming the role of a social mediator, served as a salient object mediating joint attention with other people (adults and children).