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Kaspar the Friendly Robot helps autistic children

By Catholic Online
March 9th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

At a pre-school for autistic children in Stevenage, north of London, researchers bring in a human-looking, child-sized robot weekly for a supervised session with children, whose autism ranges from mild to severe. Playing with the robot for up to 10 minutes alongside a scientist who controls the robot with a remote control, the children learn how to blink, smile, frown and hug.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Named Kaspar, the robot has shaggy black hair, a baseball cap, a few wires protruding from his neck, and striped red socks. He was built by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire at a cost of about $2,118.
 
Student Eden Sawczenko used to recoil when other little girls held her hand and turned stiff when they hugged her. The 4-year-old girl began playing with Kaspar - and now she hugs everyone.

"She's a lot more affectionate with her friends now and will even initiate the embrace," said Claire Sawczenko, Eden's mother.

There are several versions of Kaspar, including one advanced enough to play Nintendo Wii. The robot is still in the experimental stage, and researchers hope he could be mass-produced one day for a few hundred dollars.

"Children with autism don't react well to people because they don't understand facial expressions," Ben Robins, a senior research fellow in computer science at the University of Hertfordshire says. "Robots are much safer for them because there's less for them to interpret and they are very predictable."

There are similar projects in Canada, Japan and the U.S., but the British one is the most advanced according to other European robot researchers not connected with the project.

The newest model of Kaspar is covered in silicone patches that feel like skin to help children become more comfortable with touching people. Almost 300 kids in Britain with autism, a disorder that affects development of social interaction and communication, have played with a Kaspar robot as part of scientific research.

The robot has only a handful of tricks, like saying "Hello, my name is Kaspar. Let's play together," The robot also laughs when his sides or feet are touched, raising his arms up and down, or hiding his face with his hands and crying out "Ouch. This hurts," when he's slapped too hard.

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