Kaspar the friendly robot teaching autistic children

Eden Sawczenko used to recoil when other little girls held her hand and turned stiff when they hugged her.

Eden Sawczenko reacts to Kaspar the robot

Eden Sawczenko reacts to Kaspar the robot

Eden Sawczenko used to recoil when other little girls held her hand and turned stiff when they hugged her.

This year, the four-year-old autistic girl began playing with a robot that teaches about emotions and physical contact — and now she hugs everyone.

“She’s a lot more affectionate with her friends now and will even initiate the embrace,” said Claire Sawczenko, Eden’s mother.

The girl attends a pre-school for autistic children in Stevenage, north of London, England, where researchers bring in a human-looking, child-sized robot once a week for a supervised session. The children, whose autism ranges from mild to severe, play with the robot for up to 10 minutes alongside a scientist who controls the robot with a remote control.

The robot, named Kaspar, is programmed to do things like smile, frown, laugh, blink and wave his arms. He has shaggy black hair, a baseball cap, a few wires protruding from his neck, and striped red socks. He was built by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire at a cost of about US$2,118.

There are several versions of Kaspar, including one advanced enough to play Nintendo Wii. The robot’s still in the experimental stage, and researchers hope he could be mass-produced one day for a few hundred dollars.

“Children with autism don’t react well to people because they don’t understand facial expressions,” said Ben Robins, a senior research fellow in computer science at the University of Hertfordshire who specializes in working with autistic children.

“Robots are much safer for them because there’s less for them to interpret and they are very predictable.”

There are similar projects in Canada, Japan and the U.S., but the British one is the most advanced according to other European robot researchers not connected with the project.

Scientists at the University of Hertfordshire first began using a version of Kaspar in 2005. The newest model is covered in silicone patches that feel like skin to help children become more comfortable with touching people. So far, almost 300 kids in Britain with autism, a disorder that affects development of social interaction and communication, have played with a Kaspar robot as part of scientific research.

The robot has only a handful of tricks, like saying “Hello, my name is Kaspar. Let’s play together,” laughing when his sides or feet are touched, raising his arms up and down, or hiding his face with his hands and crying out “Ouch. This hurts,” when he’s slapped too hard.

But that is enough to keep autistic children enthralled. Ronnie Arloff, 4, was so eager to see Kaspar he banged on the door and shouted his name. Arloff opened his arms wide just like the robot. He also recognized facial expressions, saying “happy” when Kaspar was smiling and “sad” when he frowned.

Nan Cannon-Jones, an autism consultant at the school, said the robot helps children understand emotions and language. “After Kaspar says ‘haha’ when he’s tickled, the children learn that’s what laughing is,” she said. Two of the 12 to 17 kids who attend the pre-school have refused to play with Kaspar outright.

The school also uses speech and music therapy. “You can’t teach children to speak or play using a robot, but it helps reinforce what we’re teaching them already, like how to share and be nice to people,” Cannon-Jones said.

Experts not linked to the project said it was a promising idea.

“Autistic children like things that are made up of different parts, like a robot, so they may process what the robot does more easily than a real person,” said Dr. Abigael San, a childhood clinical psychologist in London and spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society.

She thought it was possible that skills children learned with the robot at the pre-school could be transferred to their homes or the playground. But San warned that experts and parents shouldn’t rely on robots too much. “We don’t want children with autism to get too used to playing with robots,” she said.

“Ultimately, they need to be able to relate to other people.”

Kerstin Dautenhahn, the senior researcher at the University of Hertfordshire behind the Kaspar project, said she and colleagues don’t have enough data to know if playing with Kaspar has sped up social skills in autistic children. They have published case studies describing improvements in up to a dozen children but no long-term trials.

Researchers say prospects for a comprehensive study depend on funding and teacher-parent participation, since they would have to track the kids for years — but they would like to carry one out.

She said it might also be possible to modify Kaspar to help children with other developmental problems, like Down syndrome.

Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London, said the robot was valuable in providing children with social interactions, but doubted a machine was necessary.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Red Deer jumps to 449 active COVID-19 cases on Sunday

1,516 new cases identified in Alberta

The QEII was closed Sunday morning due to a pole fire. (Photo courtesy City of Red Deer)
UPDATE: QEII near Red Deer reopens

The QEII has been reopened after being closed due to a pole… Continue reading

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Bashaw RCMP investigate fatal collision in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP are investigating after a fatal collision Saturday afternoon. Police were… Continue reading

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It's not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he'd been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

DELIA, Alta. — It’s not often police can report that a unicorn… Continue reading

Investigators from the Vancouver Police Department were in Chilliwack Saturday, collecting evidence connected to a double homicide. (file photo)
Police investigate shooting death of man outside downtown Vancouver restaurant

Vancouver police say one man was killed in what they believe was… Continue reading

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start registering people 18 years and older for COVID-19 vaccines

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government says it’s inviting people 18 years… Continue reading

San Jose's Tomas Hertl, center, celebrates with teammates Patrick Marleau, left, and Rudolfs Blacers, right, after Hertl scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Friday, April 16, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Patrick Marleau set to break Gordie Howe’s games record

For Patrick Marleau, the best part about Monday night when he is… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Half of U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot

WASHINGTON — Half of all adults in the U.S. have received at… Continue reading

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Federal government to send health-care workers to Ontario, Trudeau says

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says federal departments and some Canadian… Continue reading

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

Most Read