December 02, 2016      

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about one in 68 American children has autism spectrum disorder. And therapy isn’t cheap at roughly $60,000 a year for the recommended amount of 40 hours per week of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) needed to effectively treat autism.

The high cost is one of the reasons many autistic children don’t receive proper care. But there’s growing evidence that robots can help. We already shared our list of “5 Promising Robots for Kids with Autism,” now there’s a new robot called PABI (Penguin for Autism Behavioral Intervention) that is looking to make autism therapy more affordable.

Developed by the husband-wife team of Gregory Fischer, director of WPI’s Automation and Interventional Medicine (AIM) Lab, and Laurie Dickstein-Fischer, Salem State University School of Education professor, PABI recently completed a two-week pilot study with five autistic children, and the results were very promising.

PABI is 20-inch-tall, 12-inch-wide robot penguin with 12 degrees of freedom that autonomously conducts ABA therapy while logging therapy data that will be reviewed by a human therapist. PABI can move its beak, two wings, two eyes (independently) and eyelids.

It also uses openCV 2.49 and 720p webcams to track a child’s facial expressions that can then be reviewed by the therapist. There’s also a computer in PABI’s stomach that pairs wirelessly with a tablet to run interactive lessons for the children. Here’s a paper that details how PABI was built (PDF).

A look through PABI’s eyes how robots can help therapy sessions for autistic children. (Video Credit: WPI)

Robotics Trends first heard about PABI when Fischer joined The Robotics Trends Show in July 2016. Fischer explained how some human therapists struggle to simultaneously track behavior, take notes, and maintain engagement with a child during a therapy session.

“They are interacting much more and not feeling the pressure to fill out the data tracking forms or manage other therapy-related logistics during the session,” says Fischer. PABI hopes to provide more quantitative results by using artificial intelligence (AI) to track a child’s progress and automatically tailor curriculum to the child’s needs.

PABI Autism Therapy RobotPABI working with an autistic child at a school in Melrose, MA. (Credit: WPI)

PABI’s creators say multiple language capabilities, among other features, will be added in the future. It is important to note that PABI cannot make a diagnosis and is not designed to replace therapists. PABI is intended to be a supplemental tool used by therapists as well as at home by parents and caregivers. It could also be used during summer months when many autistic children receive even fewer hours of therapy.

“Early intervention is so critical,” says Dickstein-Fischer.

Fischer and Dickstein-Fischer first started working on PABI in 2009 as an exploration of how robots could aid autism research and treatment. Seven years and a successful pilot study later, the married couple hopes to now find partners that can help make PABI commercially available within a couple years.

“Hearing parents say that this makes such a difference for their child is so rewarding,” says Dickstein-Fischer.

PABI CreatorsGregory Fischer and Laurie Dickstein-Fischer, the husband-wife duo behind PABI. (Credit: WPI)