Transitional Wearable Companions: A Novel Concept of Soft Interactive Social Robots to Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Abstract

We present a novel concept of interactive devices, called “transitional wearable companions” (TWCs), usable to support therapy and foster social skill development in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). TWCs have two distinctive features. First, they are soft interactive devices, which look like tender animals, able to arise attachment emotions and give a continuous reassuring physical contact. Second, TWCs are embedded social robots responding to the child’s manipulations by emitting lights, sounds, or vibrations usable for multiple purposes, for example to enhance the child’s engagement. TWCs can have additional important features. First, the input–output rules with which they respond to the child’s actions can be changed by the therapist/caregiver, for example through a tablet, thus opening a large number of possibilities to foster social interaction. Second, TWCs can have biosensors gathering information on the child’s physiological and emotional state, thus offering multiple ways to support the interaction with the child during therapy and daily life. The paper presents the principles underlying TWC design, their possible future enhancements, a first prototype (+me) of social TWC, and possible empirical experiment procedures to test the effectiveness of TWC in controlled experiments. For their multifaceted and flexible features, TWCs might become an important tool to enhance ASD children’s social abilities in ecological and therapeutic contexts.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Commercial products for physiological data recording are now becoming available at relatively low prices, e.g. see www.empatica.com.

  2. 2.

    http://www.istc.cnr.it/group/locen.

  3. 3.

    www.plusme.it.

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Acknowledgments

This research has received funds from the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013), ICT Challenge 2 “Cognitive Systems and Robotics”, project “IM-CLeVeR - Intrinsically Motivated Cumulative Learning Versatile Robots”, grant agreement no. ICT-IP-231722. The authours would like to thank M. Aliberti, S. Scaffaro, A. Medda from INI Institute, Villa Dante for the collaboration in developing the TWC general idea, and M. Cicorella from MakeInBo for his help in developing the +me hardware.

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Correspondence to Beste Özcan.

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Özcan, B., Caligiore, D., Sperati, V. et al. Transitional Wearable Companions: A Novel Concept of Soft Interactive Social Robots to Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Int J of Soc Robotics 8, 471–481 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12369-016-0373-8

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Social interaction
  • Therapy
  • Interactivity
  • Wearable
  • Biosensors
  • Emotional state