Robot Therapists Enter the Realm of Child Psychiatry

The field of psychiatry is historically associated entirely with human interaction and empathy; it is a science and field that seems unlikely to be associated with the ever-increasing encroachment of technology and robots in the medical field. However, that is exactly what is happening. Robot therapy is becoming an increasingly growing area of study; it’s most prominent sector being the realm children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


The use of robot therapy with children with ASD is a thriving area of research; studies have shown that children with autism prefer to interact with technology over interacting with humans. The medical and psychiatric realm is now working to determine how to optimize this preference for everyone’s benefit. Zachary Warren, Ph.D. poses the question, “How do we use this preference to boost early social skills, as opposed to having technology exacerbate the deficits in social behavior?” It’s a delicate line balance. Warren has been working on a creating an environment that tests a “robot therapist’s” ability to teach joint attention to children with autism. This inability to share the focus of on a common item is an early, telltale sign of autism spectrum disorder in children.


Warren and a team of engineers have created a system of cameras that track where a child’s focus is held. While the cameras are rolling, a robot provides prompts to the child to guide their gaze/focus. The robots are equipped to provide positive reinforcement to the children when prompts are received successfully. The use of robots in this scenario provide a very unique benefit: the physical presence of the robot allows it to be more than just a tool; children react with this technology creature more readily (and differently) than they would with simple 2D images on a screen.


This is not to say that the robots will be able to replace human interaction (at this point in time), but the robots do offer a unique, complementary addition to the care and treatment that a child can get from humans.


There is a huge potential for growth within the field of robotic therapy. Autism spectrum disorder is not the only disorder that can be addressed with the correct robot technology. There is the potential for robot therapists to work with children who are survivors of trauma or abuse, who may feel more comfortable being open with something that is not a person. There is also the potential to move away from children, and to work with older adults who suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia.


To see the article that inspired this post, click here.