HAVERHILL — At the front of Room 201 in the Moody School, a robot is holding court.
Classroom aide Bernadette Roy leads the activity, but it is the 2-foot-tall humanoid figure talking, gesticulating, and even dancing that has the rapt attention of the four preschoolers in attendance.
When the robot, named Chip by the school staff, asks students to touch its right hand, Zeeshan Etesham, a small boy in an oversize T-shirt that reads “Autism is my superpower,” reaches out to do so. He taps the correct sensor and the robot claps its three-fingered hands in encouragement.
“It’s incredibly exciting, because you can see the power of it on the student’s face,” said Sandra O’Connor, the school’s evaluation team facilitator.
Chip is one of two robots — the second is named Connor — that Aldebaran Robotics recently donated to Moody School. The preschool is one of just three schools worldwide that are part of the Paris-based company’s efforts to understand how this robot model, known as NAO, can best be used with autistic children in classrooms.
Both robots are roughly human-shaped and, with 25 joints, they move fluidly and expressively. When they speak, their gestures emphasize the words and when at rest, their torsos sway ever so slightly, as if they were breathing. They even say “ouch” when they stumble into obstacles.
The robots have so much personality that staffers refer to each of them as “him” or “our friend,” and never as “it.”
One of the goals is to teach autistic children social skills — such as eye contact, listening, and responding to others – that they can transfer to interactions with people, Roy said.
The science on that point is not yet clear, however, said Brian Scassellati, a Yale University professor of computer science who researches the use of robots with autistic children.
“Everything we’re looking at right now in this field is very preliminary,” he said. “Is it ready for large-scale adoption? Not at all.”
In one activity at the Moody School, Chip asks students to pick a picture of a certain animal from cards Roy has laid in front of them. In another, the robot performs tai chi movements and the children are encouraged to follow along.
“They are learning visually from him; they’ll mimic his movements,” O’Connor said.
The robots can record data from sessions with individual students, allowing teachers and parents to track progress online.
Autism, a brain development disorder that generally involves difficulty with social interactions and communication, has become an increasingly common diagnosis. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the United States has some type of autism, such as autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. That’s more than 10 times higher than the rate 40 years ago, according to research and advocacy organization Autism Speaks.
Understanding of how to best treat and educate children with some form of autism is still limited, but the use of robots is an emerging — and promising — approach.
“Every time we put a robot with a child with autism, we see the kids get very excited, very motivated, and very engaged,” said Scassellati. “If it really does work, this is a great step forward for us.”
A few years ago, Aldebaran decided to start investigating ways that NAO robots, now used mostly in robotics research and computer science education at the high school and university levels, could be programmed to work with children with various forms of autism, said Olivier Joubert, head of Aldebaran’s autism program.
Chip and Connor came to Moody School after O’Connor watched a November segment on NBC’s “Today Show” about the company’s robots being used with autistic students at a school in England. She wrote to Aldebaran, and to her surprise, Joubert wrote back. The two communicated further, and in December, Joubert visited the school. The next month, O’Connor got an e-mail telling her two robots were on their way, free of charge, from Paris to Haverhill.
The robots are currently priced at about $16,000, though Aldebaran has not yet decided what it will charge for models programmed to work with autistic children, Joubert said.
He said he chose Moody School to be part of the testing phase partially because of its proximity to Aldebaran’s Boston office and the opportunity to help a lower-income community. But mostly, he said, he picked Haverhill because the school and its staff just felt right.
Moody integrates students with disabilities and autistic disorders into classes with typically- developing students. The two robots have been used with, and enjoyed by, all the students for about three weeks, O’Connor said. But the impact on autistic students stands out, she said.
“We have seen changes in the children, in their ability to pay attention” she said. “There isn’t another tool they have reacted to like that.”
Jackie Gallagher’s son, Caydan, was diagnosed as autistic when he was 20 months old. He responds well to visual cues, she said, and was immediately taken with the robot, which is more predictable and less impulsive than other children, or even adults.
“That’s why he really embraces it — he knows what to expect,” Gallagher said.
Staff at the Moody School are in frequent contact with Aldebaran and offer suggestions about how the robots could be improved. They would like them programmed to demonstrate yoga moves, for example, and wonder if some of the sensors can be made more touch-sensitive.
O’Connor said it’s exciting for the school to be involved in such a pioneering project. And she’s still amazed it came about because of one impulsive e-mail.
“It has just snowballed into something fantastic,” she said.