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Robot Improves Quality of Life for Autistic Children

Update Date: Sep 29, 2012 09:58 AM EDT

In what could be called a breakthrough in the world for the betterment of children with special needs, Charlie could be the latest name.

Charlie is a robot designed by University of South Carolina's College of Engineering and Computing doctoral student, Laura Boccanfuso and she hopes that her invention could help children with autism improve their communication skills and interactions with others.

Charlie, is short for Child Centered Adaptive Robot for Learning Environments.

"As I was researching ideas for my doctoral work, I came across similar robots being used to help children with special needs," Boccanfuso said, according to Medical Xpress. "As a mother, I understand how important it is for parents to have access to affordable tools to improve their child's future."

Boccanfuso designed Charlie's exterior in 2010 with help of assistant professor Jason O'Kane and implemented all of her games and functions. She also placed a camera in Charlie's nose with software that would allow Charlie to detect and imitate the motions she records.

"If the child puts up his right arm, Charlie will lift her right arm, too," she said. "The robot feeds off of cues from the child and can change the way she plays or interacts based on the child's movements and behavioral responses."

Also, an infrared sensor in conjunction with Charlie allows her to detect temperature and breathing changes in a child.

"Charlie knows she needs to sit passively if the sensor picks up that the child is getting agitated. That is important for child with autism. You must communicate with them in a non-alarming way."

Previous research has shown that verbal utterances by children were higher while they interacted with robots.

"My hope is that Charlie could be widely used and accessible to all families. She is not expensive to build, so maybe parents will be empowered to use robots to help their kids improve communication skills at home."

Boccanfuso is currently working on testing Charlie with a group of children with autism. She, in the next three to six months, hopes to watch and record these children interacting with the robot.

"Then we will know if our hypothesis is true," she said. "If this robot can, in fact, improve the life for children with special needs, that would be a dream come true."

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