Robots and autistic children connect

NAO robots can be easier for overstimulated kids to understand.

By Callum Borchers | The Boston Globe

Aldebaran Robotics has a vision for its walking, talking, dancing humanoid: It wants the 2-foot-tall robot called NAO to become a mainstream household helper that can wake you up in the morning, deliver a weather forecast, and even help the kids with their homework.

That day may come, but for now the French company with an important research office in Boston has found NAO to be exceptional in an unexpected role as a classroom aide for children with autism.

Kids with autism are drawn to the friendly-looking robot and sometimes learn better by interacting with NAOs than with their human teachers. Academic researchers — Aldebaran’s primary market for the $10,000 robots — were the first to notice the trend a few years ago while using NAOs to study robots in education.

Aldebaran launched the Autism Solution for Kids initiative out of its Boston office last year and donated NAO robots to three pilot schools, including the Moody School in Haverhill.

Autism spectrum disorders affect an estimated one in 68 American children. They are characterized by difficulty with social interactions and communication.

While some people with autism excel in school and make friends easily, others struggle academically and may be completely nonverbal. For a child who has a hard time reading social cues, a robot can be easier to follow.

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