Kaspar, the robot teaches autistic
children human interaction
April 3, 2017
Kaspar, the robot created by researchers at the University of
Hertfordshire to help children with autism around the UK and
internationally, is taking part in its first National Institute for
Health Research (NIHR) clinical trial.
This trial, which is the first of its
kind in the UK, will be delivered by Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust
and funded by the NIHR, the research arm of the NHS.
Kaspar is a child-sized, socially interactive robot developed by the
University of Hertfordshire to help children with autism. It uses
realistic, but simplified human-like features to help them learn how to
socialise, interact and communicate.
This NIHR study will work with children aged from 5 to 10 years old who
have only recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
This is because research shows early intervention increases the
likelihood of improved long-term outcomes for children with the
The initial two year study will work with 40 children and help establish
the feasibility of conducting a full-scale trial using Kaspar with
approximately 250 participants. It will compare the social skills of
those children who interact with Kaspar and a therapist and those who
interact with a therapist only.
So far Kaspar has been used in long-term studies with approximately 170
autistic children in Britain and overseas, but this is the first trial
involving the NHS. Kaspar helps the children by playing games which
contain important skills for the development of social interaction.
Kaspar does this by using skin sensors on various parts of its body that
allow the robot to be programmed to respond to touch. This enables
Kaspar to encourage certain tactile behaviours in the children and
discourage inappropriate ones. As part of the trial the children will be
given time to familiarise themselves with the therapist and Kaspar
before taking part in six therapy sessions.
Supporting the development of children with autism
Dr Karen Irvine, who is the Trial Coordinator for the study at the
University of Hertfordshire, said: “Research has explored the use of
Socially Assisted Robots (SARs), such as Kaspar, in supporting the
social and emotional development of children with autism.
“We want to take that even further and this clinical trial with the NHS
will help us do that. In previous studies with Kaspar there have been
promising results that show it improves the development of communication
and social skills in children with autism, particularly those of a young
age. We want to build on that success in a clinical environment.”
According to the National Autistic Society, there are currently 700,000
people with autism in the UK, meaning autism is part of the daily lives
of around 2.8 million people. But parents frequently report waiting a
long time for a diagnosis and express feelings of dissatisfaction with
the availability of interventions. That is where Kaspar comes in.
Dr Irvine added: “The overall key aim of this study, and all the work
with Kaspar, is to help children with autism explore basic human
communication and emotions as well as learn about socially acceptable
physical interaction. Children with autism can sometimes find this kind
of interaction difficult so Kaspar helps bridge the gap with other
children, teachers, family members and therapists.”
An innovative approach
Callander,the Lead Allied Health Professional at Hertfordshire Community
NHS Trust, said: “We are delighted to be the first NHS trust working
with the University of Hertfordshire and the NIHR on this project. We
hope the Kaspar trial will bring real benefits to the children we care
Minister for Public Health and Innovation Nicola Blackwood said: “This
innovative approach is an excellent example of our researchers pushing
boundaries to improve lives.
“The NIHR has a proud tradition of supporting our world class
researchers to tackle health and social care challenges, from new
vaccines, to cancer treatment, to robots like Kaspar. This trial could
lead to real impact for families and children across the country – and
that is what matters most.”