Robots May Help to Monitor Emotional State of Autistic Children

February 19, 2009
Sean Johnson

Vanderbilt University professor Nilanjan Sarkar "developed a method that uses physiological measurements, including heart rate, galvanic skin response, temperature and muscle response, to monitor the emotional state of individuals."

Over the last five years, Nilanjan Sarkar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, has “developed a method that uses physiological measurements, including heart rate, galvanic skin response, temperature and muscle response, to monitor the emotional state of individuals.” The motivation behind this method was for Sarkar to improve human—robot interactions. During the process, Sarkar’s nephew was diagnosed with autism, and it was then that he had the idea of applying his technique to aid children with the condition. That’s when he teamed up with Wendy Stone, professor of pediatrics and investigator at Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center, to develop an approach.

Stone was on board from the beginning, and said that “Children with autism are not necessarily giving the kind of emotional cues that we know how to read. They are not necessarily good reporters of their inner feelings. If we know that the child is becoming upset or anxious, then we can help the child identify his or her own emotional state and implement strategies for monitoring and control. It is a concrete way to help them identify their own feelings.”

To date, monitoring the emotional state of autistic children with robots has been very limited. If Sarkar and Stone find a way to overcome these limitations and accurately determine emotional states, the use of such robots would have a significant social impact. In addition, these robots present an opportunity to slash the cost of treating the condition. When considering that the treatment of autistic children “involves a combination of behavioral, educational, physical, occupational and speech therapies, sometimes accompanied by medication for co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, irritability, bi-polar and other disorders” and that “the average cost of caring for one person with autism for life is $3.2 million,” the time and effort being spent on this project could be well invested.

Stone stated that “This approach holds great promise. It will involve many steps and this is just the beginning. There are lots of different possible applications. So it is just a matter of finding the resources to explore them all.”

To read more about this project, click here.

specialty: pediatrics