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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 condition.

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

Jill 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 for.”

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.”

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