Interactive robot aids autistic kids in the classroom

A friendly robot programmed to interact and educate kids with autism is officially launched into special-needs classrooms.

ASK NAO works with autistic children at Topcliffe primary school in the United Kingdom.
Ed Alcock

Nao is a humanoid robot created by Aldebaran Robotics. He wears a jaunty orange headpiece, moves his limbs, dances, and interacts with humans. Nao has held jobs ranging from human-machine interaction research subject to synchronized show dancer at events. His new role, however, may be one of the most impactful yet. ASK Nao is a special version designed to work with autistic children.

ASK stands for "Autism Solution for Kids." The robot is programmed with games and applications geared toward helping autistic kids develop social and learning skills. "Most children on the autism spectrum have a natural attraction towards technology and Nao's humanoid shape creates a perfect link between technology and humanity," said Olivier Joubert, autism business unit manager at Aldebaran.

Humanoid robots have been used to work with autistic kids before. Kaspar, a child-size robot, was tested with autistic boys for a research project investigating robotics as educational tools. ASK Nao features more advanced movements than Kaspar, however.

The 23-inch-tall Nao bot is equipped with a sensor network, two cameras, four microphones, a voice synthesizer, LED lights, and two speakers. ASK Nao comes ready with a series of games and applications. One example is Guess Emotions, a game that works by Nao acting out emotions through sound and body gestures, and then prompting the child to identify the emotion. This exercise aims to help kids improve their emotion recognition skills.

ASK Nao robots have been involved in a beta test program for more than a year at Topcliffe Primary school in the United Kingdom. "The children in our autism base are completely motivated by [the robots]. The different behaviors support children with little or no communication skills to learn and interact with the robot to enhance their own development," writes head teacher Ian Lowe.

ASK Nao is getting an official launch and is now available to schools and special-education centers. Pricing hasn't been disclosed, but it can vary depending on custom programming options.