Description of the Project

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects people’s world perception and interaction with others. Its defined as deficits in social communication and interaction and restricted/repetitive patterns of behavior/interests/activities and affects 1% of the population (7.5m European citizens)

It is a disabling condition with difficulties in independent living, self-care, educational and employment prospects. Almost half of the individuals will have intellectual impairment and never develop speech. There is no ‘cure’ for autism. However, there is a range of interventions for enhancing the learning and development. Any intervention should focus on developing child’s social skills, as it has been shown that social competence is a predictor of long-term outcomes for individuals with autism. Children with autism should receive psychosocial intervention as a first-line treatment and this should include play-based strategies, which will have impact on their ability to gain the most from other interventions and improve their long-term outcomes. But autism is a highly heterogeneous disorder requiring personalized and tailored interventions for each individual. What may work for one child may not be effective for the other. Without appropriate intervention, autism can lead to family breakdowns, mental illness and family members becoming lifelong carers. Communication deficits in children with autism are also present in communication between the child and the therapist during the interventions. Recently, the scientific community has been exploring the promising results in the use of Socially Assisted Robots in supporting the social and emotional development of children with autism. Using robots as social mediators to engage children in tasks, allows for a simplified, predictable and reliable environment e. g. having predictable rules has been shown to be important in promoting prosocial behaviors in autism.

In this study we will use KASPAR, a humanoid social robot. Case studies are showing promising results in enhancing communication and social interaction skills in children with autism. Those case studies reported improvements in children’s behavior, suggesting benefits of KASPAR mediated interventions. But main goal of using KASPAR is to transfer those gained skills in the interventions in real communication with people.
The objective of this feasibility study is to test the proof of concept in using KASPAR in conjunction with Apps for a personal mobile devices as a novel intervention tool for children with autism. KASPAR could provide assistance for the therapists during the sessions, mediating between the child and therapist helping overcome any interaction difficulties and stimulating social interaction
skills.

Being synchronized also to Apps, the system could provide continuity beyond the session, encouraging the children to practice their skills according to the specific intervention objectives also in their day-to-day activities e.g. at school or home as and when appropriate, encouraging social interaction skills in their daily life. Due to costs and limited availability of social robots in general, the use of robots in intervention will more likely be limited to sessions in institutions. In developing the proposed concept, we make such system much more effective and accessible to the general public, potentially helping children with autism in their daily life.

Also, we will identify country specific needs of children with autism and their parents as well as the needs of the practitioners in using technology as intervention tool. e. g. investigate the acceptability of the technology by those primary and secondary users. KASPAR is a semi-autonomous robot. It has some autonomy behavior e. g. responding autonomously to tactile interaction and it also can be operated remotely by a remote control. This may become a useful tool in the hand of a practitioner, who can initiate robot behaviors responding to the need of a child during the intervention session e. g. the robot becomes a mediator between the practitioner and the child. Therefore, investigating the practitioner’s needs too is very important for the future development of the technology.

This project can only be transnational because each partner is expert in a specific area of relevance for successful realization (Apps , child-robot interaction, autism research). The required level of expertise, previous experience and involvement in various international organizations and associations can be secured only through international partnership with renowned partners. In addition the interventions with children with autism will take place in the UK, Macedonia and Croatia. This multinational dimension
will boost the reliability and transcultural aspects of the findings.
We address specific Erasmus+ and Europe 2020 goals:
– promoting equity and inclusion in people with disability, educational difficulties, economic&social obstacles, cultural differences.