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Robot pets are more than just play things. They’ve been used in animal-assisted therapy programs for aging adults who suffer from dementia. Another huge role they play is being part of research in autism therapy.
Robot-assisted therapy has been linked to aid in developmental disorders, specifically for autistic children. This is because children on the autism spectrum tend to have delayed or impaired social development compared to other children, resulting in lack of or awkward social engagement with their peers as they grow older.
One of the biggest symptoms tied to autism is disinterest in social interaction. At a young age, children with autism are seen to be more interested in objects rather than people. This means they don’t get a chance to fully develop their social interaction skills — causing awkward interactions as they age. This is because they understand the physical world much better than the social world, as Vanderbilt University researcher Nilanjan Sarkar puts it.
Another thing that’s important to note is that the autism spectrum disorder is an incredibly wide one. That means there’s not just one way for an autistic person to act: they can exhibit different symptoms and to varying degrees.
The problem begins when the depiction of ASD in popular culture has led to some jarring myths that result in discrimination against kids, older children, and adults who have autism. Let’s dispel a few.
Autism is defined as a pervasive developmental disorder usually seen at a very early age. While it is characterized by symptoms of underdeveloped social skills, repetitive behaviors, and delayed human interactive communication, autism is not a transmissible disease.
To aid these symptoms, many autistic children undergo therapy and engage in activities that encourage social interaction as well as reduce repetitive behaviors. Animal-assisted therapy is one, and robot interaction is another.
One of the largest myths surrounding this disorder is its cause. So far, there is no single cause for autism, but it is largely attributed to genetics and abnormalities in brain structure. But there is no truth to the misconception that autism is caused by vaccines.
This rumor started after a dubious research linking vaccines and autism was published in a journal. However, upon closer inspection, the research and its findings were deemed unreliable. The author was even stripped of his medical license afterwards.
Another harmful myth is that people with autism are cold and lack emotion. Because these young children may not be able to interpret social cues or express what they’re feeling, many people believe that they simply don’t have them.
However, that’s not at all true. These children simply lack the faculties for communication, making it difficult for them to express what they’re feeling.
This is why researchers often use robot-assisted play in order to stimulate social interaction among children with autism. These robots bridge the gap between human behavior and technology.
It’s highly believed that children with ASD are far more interested in technology than in socialization, but by tinkering with a humanoid robot, they may be able to significantly learn more about the social world and how to navigate it.
One of the most prevalent images of autistic children we see in television and movies is that they’re geniuses. While it’s a myth, it stems from a symptom found in 1 out of 10 of children with autism called the savant syndrome. The savant syndrome is when a person, usually with a developmental disorder, displays incredible prodigious skill or talent in a certain field of interest usually related to mental ability.
Another reason why people may think all children with autism are geniuses is their characteristic of having a limited field of interest. Often, these children or adults will have very specific niches that they feel passionately interested in and are often preoccupied with.
There are plenty more myths surrounding children with autism spectrum disorders that prove to be harmful. But it remains that at the end of the day, they are human beings capable of living fulfilled and happy lives, especially in a society that accepts them as they are.
While there is no “cure” for this developmental disorder, plenty of therapy options are available. We’ll be looking at the research surrounding robotic animals and how they benefit children with autism.
The benefits of robotic assistants in the form of companion dogs or therapy dogs have long been documented, and not just for children with autism. Patients in elderly care facilities often undergo robot-assisted therapy, whether it’s with a therapy dog or a small humanoid robot.
This is because the robotic pet dogs promote social interactions in elderly people who may be isolated, or otherwise suffer from diseases like dementia that can impair their social engagement.
Unlike real animals, these robot dogs promoted greater social interaction without the hassle of cleaning up, training, and other responsibilities that might come with a real animal. These robotic therapy dogs provide a neutral social partner that also aids in memory care and physical activity.
Believe it or not, social robots have long been the object of fascination for interaction studies involving autism therapy. Previous research often involves the child, who counts as one participant, a sociable robot, and a team or a therapist who facilitates the social interaction.
One shining example is Milo the robot, a small humanoid that looks almost like a real child. In this scenario, children are taught and encouraged to mimic Milo’s facial expressions or to identify what such expressions mean.
Previous studies suggest children with autism have a hard time understanding social cues because of their inability to perceive the meaning of a smile or a frown. Such activities with social robots help develop important faculties within these children.
Through this kind of occupational therapy, potential participants are believed to be able to practice interpersonal communication, although they won’t actually be talking to a real person.
Even then, this robot interaction style of treatment seems to be positive. In one video, social robots are shown to capture the attention of children who are otherwise inattentive to other humans. At the same time, they also encouraged positive physical contact, a significant factor in the overall quality of social interaction with the machines.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activities (AAA) have long been used to aid children with developmental concerns. Not only are they known to provide feelings of joy and reduced stress, but they also provide a wonderful avenue for social interaction and are easily trainable to assist in the program’s planned out activities.
However, animal assisted therapies can be detrimental not only to patients but also to the dogs themselves. Previous research involving the use of a therapy dog in a medical setting showed that owners often missed signs of stress or anxiety in their pets.
Enter: robot dogs. They provided a unique substitute that wouldn’t impair the welfare of real dogs or other animals while still providing ample social interaction and enjoyment for children.
In a study that compared the effects of a live therapy dog vs. a therapy robot, participants interacted almost equally positively with both, although in varying ways. These dogs were trained to deal positively with unfamiliar people.
Children appeared to have enjoyed their robot interaction, citing words such as “calm” to describe their experience. While plenty of physiological measures and statistical tests were ensured before the session began, the difference of their time spent with the robot and the live animal were not statistically significant. Each child seemed to enjoy both interactions.
However, it goes to show that these animatrons could successfully replace live pets in AAT for children with autism, although future studies with other pets are needed.
Pets in general are considered beneficial for the well-being of an autistic child. Often, the first animal that comes to mind is a dog, as they are trainable and known to be friendly. Pets serve as a way to socialize with a living being, and they can also be a point of communication between two kids.
Guinea pigs are another great option for kids with ASD. One pilot study conducted in a classroom showed improved social skills, a better mood, and fewer negative expressions such as frowning or crying after these children interacted with guinea pigs.
However, taking care of pets is not always a walk in the park. They require both physical and financial support in order to truly live a healthy life. That’s why robot pets are considered a suitable low-maintenance substitute. With their ever-growing popularity, more robot dogs and robot cats are being produced for commercial use. Take a look at our guides to find the best one for your child.
There’s enough research to suggest that the presence of robotic animals can encourage social interaction skills among kids diagnosed with ASD. There’s also enough room for future work to refine the existing body of knowledge. At this point, we’re lucky to live in a world that combines high-end technology with the welfare of children and older adults.
A human-to-animal bond has been shown to benefit autistic children. A study funded by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) shows that parents deal with less familial stress and anxiety after their child was given a pet dog.
However, not everyone has the resources to take care of a live pet. That’s why plenty of experts recommend robotic pets. They’re easier to clean, don’t require constant monitoring, and are easier to control as they don’t require training.