Robot helps children with autism by teaching them social skills

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DENVER -- It's therapy like you've never seen before and he's not your traditional therapist.

NAO moves, talks and even dances the macarena; he even knows some more recent hits like Gangnam Style.

NAO is a social robot programmed by professors at the University of Denver in a study that started four years ago.

Engineering professor Mohammad Mahoor says DU engineers and psychologists work together to ensure one goal - to help children with autism interact better in social situations.

"In general, human interaction is very overwhelming for kids with autism," said Mahoor.

When you talk to humans, you have to keep up with eye movements, facial expressions, head movements and hand gestures. But Mahoor says with robots like NAO, you can limit expressions to only certain gestures and behaviors.

NAO's actions are controlled by a computer. A camera monitors the robot's sessions with kids.

Sam and NAO are good friends. Rebecca Rob, Sam's mother, is able to monitor the sessions and see how NAO interacts with Sam.

"With being in this, we got some better eye contact and he really got better at identifying facial expressions," said Rob.

Learning emotions doesn't just stop when the questions are over. When NAO falls over, children are able to express tenderness towards the robot.

"They hug the robot and you see a friendship there," said Mahoor.

For many parents of children with autism, it's the first time they've seen their kids hug anyone. The only problem comes when kids ask to take NAO home, since they cost around $8,000.

These humanoid robots can be used not only for children with autism, but those with a variety of behavioral disorders such as dementia and depression.

If you have a child who might be interested in participating in this study, you can visit the DU RoboAssist website or their Facebook page. You can also email them at roboassist@du.edu.