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Study aims to boost social skills among ASD teens through robot project

Story Date: Tue, 04 Jun 2013 10:55:00 EDT

Four students huddle around a computer and a small mass of wires, wheels, motors and sensors, looking like a group of engineering buffs. One of them reads directions while the others connect various components and punch in lines of code that will command their work product — a grapefruit-sized robot.

They’re participating in a research project, but it has little to do with the robots. It’s focused on autism.

A study led by Eastern Virginia Medical School and Old Dominion University is examining whether group collaborations — like building a functioning robot — help teenagers diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, develop important social skills. A secondary goal is to see if exposure to science and technology may spur adolescents with ASD to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related fields.

Read an in-depth article and an editorial on this study from the Virginian-Pilot.

“This particular group of adolescents, who are moving into adulthood, need skills and social communication to make the transition to college, jobs, independent functioning and the ability to form their own relationships,” says Maria Urbano, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and lead investigator on the study. “There is some research about developing social skills in the ASD population, but more is needed.”

During a 12-week period this spring, three groups of four students — two local high school teenagers with autism, one non-ASD teenage peer and one ODU engineering student — met weekly to work together on their robots. According to the researchers, it is common for people with autism to have significant difficulties initiating and maintaining social relationships because of problems with eye contact, reciprocal communication and social judgment.

“Once you graduate high school, there are a whole lot of decisions you have to make, and everything you do in life is, really, social. [Opportunities like this] prepare them to move on in their life and individuate in terms of relationships and jobs and independent living skills,” Dr. Urbano says. “The part that’s helpful about doing something like this is that it helps dissipate some of the social anxiety so that the focus is on the robot. They have to interact, and the robot forces them do that.”

The project arose from an ODU faculty member’s interest in developing ways to make STEM training accessible to students with special needs. Chung Hao Chen, PhD, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at ODU, approached EVMS with the idea of building a robot at the basis of a project to help teens with ASD build social skills. Similar research has been done elsewhere using relatively simple objects, such as Legos, but never with something as complex as a robot.

“STEM education is really for everybody,” Dr. Chen says. “If we can attract these types of students to study in the STEM fields, their studies can be tailored to their unique needs, and they can be positioned to get jobs after they’ve finished school.”

EVMS researchers will spend the next several weeks reviewing videotape of the sessions, and they will categorize and score the social exchanges using specific criteria. Participants also will take a career interest test, which they also took before the study, to see if their vocational interests shifted toward STEM-related jobs.

If the results are positive, the researchers plan to apply for funding to conduct a larger study.