Autistic Children Speak More with a Robot Around

by Marissa Steingold




At TOMBOT SCIENCE, we curate the most important scientific research related to extending and improving quality of life. 

The Science
In a 2012 study conducted by computer scientists at Yale University, high functioning children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) spent time with a supervising adult and one of three social partners: a robotic dinosaur, a touchscreen computer game and another adult.[1] Not only did the children speak substantially more with the robot than the computer game or adult social partner, but the robot’s presence also facilitated more engagement with the supervising adult.

Expert Insight
For those with ASD, socialization is often a concern, but intervention can make a difference.  Recent research has shown that children with ASD are willing to engage with robots, but this is the first study to showcase robots’ ability to stimulate conversation with other people.[2]  According to the researchers, this heightened socialization probably stems from children’s curiosity and enthusiasm for robots.

The Bottom line
The researchers stress that robots are not intended as a substitute for human interaction, but as a human-assisted supplement to their therapeutic regimen.  Similarly, live animal-assisted intervention, which has been shown to foster social engagement, lower stress levels and decrease problematic behaviors in ASD children, can act as “social lubricants,” or conversation starters.[3] [4] Though the social benefits of robot-assisted intervention resemble those of live animal-assisted intervention, the authors argue that robots are superior in at least three ways:

1) robots can be highly customizable in form and behavior,

(2) therapists and parents can control or (if need be) stop a robot instantly and with ease, and

(3) robots can be produced in volume at potentially far smaller cost than that required to train assistive animals.

More research is warranted, but hopefully robotic therapy will become a mainstay of ASD intervention.


[1] Kim, Elizabeth S.; Berkovits, Lauren D.; Bernier, Emily P.; Leyzberg, Dan; Shic, Frederick; Paul, Rhea; Scassellati, Brian. (2013) “Social Robots as Embedded Reinforcers of Social Behavior in Children with Autism.” J Autism Dev Disord. 43:1038–1049.  Accessed 4/08/2019.

[2] Duquette, A., Michaud, F., & Mercier, H. (2008). “Exploring the use of a mobile robot as an imitation agent with children with low- functioning autism.” Autonomous Robots, 24(2), 147–157; Feil-Seifer, D., & Mataric , M. J. (2009).  “Toward socially assistive robotics for augmenting interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders.”  In O. Khatib, V. Kumar, & G. J. Pappas (Eds.), Experimental robotics. Vol. 54, 201–210. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

[3] Carlisle, Gretchen.  Qtd. In LaScala, Lynette. (2015) “Super Pets: How Pets Can Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism.” January 5, 2015. 4/11/2019.

[4] O’Haire, Marguerite. (2013) “Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Literature Review.”  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.  Vol 43, 7, July 2013, 1606-1622.