Robots, multidisciplinary study advances autism research

June 8, 2011

Perhaps nowhere on the Bradley University campus is the importance of multi-disciplinary cooperation more pronounced than in the work of Dr. Chris Nikolopoulos, professor of computer science, and Dr. Deitra Kuester, professor of special education. 

The two professors and their team of undergraduate and graduate students are performing groundbreaking autism research.

Using robots simulating social interactions, the team is working to find a way to teach autistic children about appropriate social behaviors while minimizing direct human interaction, which can be uncomfortable for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The robots act as a human substitute in teaching social skills to students with ASD.  The ultimate goal is to use the robots to convey a variety of social skills, including initiating communication, reciprocal conversation, or expressing wants and needs. 

The students who participate in the project are selected based on specific personal traits. They are volunteers and receive no class credit, but say the rewards are endless.

“Being a student, you don’t always get to do practical work, but this is something that gives us real world experience,” said Shaswati Ramteke, a graduate student in computer science. 

Ramteke and her fellow group members come from different academic concentrations, but are all learning something new from this experience.

Another computer science graduate student, Supriya Thota, said what she enjoys most about the project is the chance to help autistic children.

“It makes me feel proud,” said Thota. “The children who wouldn’t look at humans still respond to the robots.”

There’s already proof that the two robots, named Johnny and Julie, are making a difference.

“Research in the field of autism is a priority. One in 110 children are now diagnosed with autism and it is the fastest growing identified disability,” said Kuester.

Two CS graduate students who worked on the project, Mark Sheehan and Sneha Dhanya, won first place for the Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences graduate division at the 18th Annual Student Scholarship Exposition held at Bradley in April 2010.

Mark Sheehan was also awarded funding by the Bradley Office of Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development to travel to the Annual  CEC 2010 Convention and Expo, in Nashville, Tenn., where he presented the research paper “Robots, Autism and Social Skills: An Innovative Process.”