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Aldebaran Robotics connects with autistic children

NAO robots can be easier for overstimulated kids to understand.

Ed Alcock

NAO robots can be easier for overstimulated kids to understand.

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.

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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.

“A lot of children with autism are easily overstimulated by everything that’s going on — what your tone is, what you’re doing with your hands, what your body language is, what your face is doing,” said Aldebaran spokeswoman Alia Pyros. “With NAO, they can just hear the robot speak in a very plain voice.”

Aldebaran has developed more than 50 apps for NAO robots that are tailored to children with autism. Most are educational games, including one in which the robot acts out an emotion — anger, sadness, or surprise — and asks the child to identify it.

NAO responds to voice commands and tracks each child’s performance. Corresponding computer software allows teachers to monitor student progress and control the robot by choosing which apps to run.

Instructors with programming skills can even write their own apps for the robot.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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