Autism and companion robots

Morgan Sykes

In a special-needs primary school in Qatar’s capital, Doha, a 3-year-old girl on the autism spectrum has a new friend called Keepon. The bond has been five months in the making, since, like many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Ghalia is wary of strangers. Keepon has been patient with Ghalia, weathering tantrums when they were first getting to know each other and not taking it personally when she wouldn’t make eye contact at first. Now, it’s clear Ghalia is fond of her new friend: She tops Keepon’s head with a knit cap and offers a kiss. The fact that Keepon doesn’t have a mouth or eyebrows doesn’t deter Ghalia. It’s actually by design. Keepon, yellow, snowman-shaped, and engineered by Hideki Kozima in Japan, is one of almost two dozen socially assistive robots deployed into Doha’s classrooms to help autistic children engage, interact, and learn. For the past five years, bio-roboticist Dr. John-John Cabibihan and colleagues at Qatar University have been at the forefront of developing culturally sensitive robotics for the Middle East’s growing autism population.

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