Robots help U researchers detect autism earlier

University of Minnesota researchers are turning to robots to help children with autism spectrum disorder benefit from early interventions.

The researchers, from the Medical School and the College of Science and Engineering, are using moving, talking robots that interact with children ages 2 to 4 years old and gather data that can reveal early signs of autism. One in 59 U.S. children is on the autism spectrum, but most aren’t diagnosed until age 4 or 5. Earlier detection gives health pro-fessionals more opportunities to start treatment when children’s brains are most plastic, making it easier to change the course of development.

In the group were Maria Gini, Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering; Marie Manner, Ph.D., formerly a student in computer science; Amy Esler, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics; and Suma Jacob, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics.

The robot is a tool for seeing how children interact with their surroundings and collecting large amounts of data that can help experts make more accurate decisions about the presence of autism-like symptoms. And because the robots behave in a standardized way, Gini says, they avoid any bias that a human might bring into the assessment.

“Autistic children like to interact with technology more than with people,” she says. “The objective of the project is to diagnose autism when the kids are very, very young, because the intervention can be done earlier, and it’s much more effective.”

Published on April 3, 2019

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