A robot currently being used to study autism and children
A robot currently being used to study autism and children

One University of Louisville study has found that robots can help autistic children with their emotions and behavior in the classroom. A new study aims to take that research several steps further.

Three UofL faculty – Dan Popa, Karla Welch and Greg Barnes – along with a researcher from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, have received a four year, $1.2 million award from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to study robots’ impact on autistic kids. UofL is one of a handful of institutions to receive a joint NSF/NIH grant through a program called Smart and Connected Health.  

Popa said the grant will allow his Next Generation robotics team and the UofL Autism Center to do three things:

  • Build a new robot that’s more interactive and intelligent;
  • Develop a new quantitative scale, using the robot, to more accurately determine where children fall on the autism spectrum;
  • Develop more focused, adaptive therapies for each child.

Popa said the goal is to come up with a robot that’s a diagnostic tool as well as a “friend” to kids with autism beginning at age six. Currently, Popa said, there is no objective, quantitative way to assess the severity of a child’s autism. He thinks robotics and artificial intelligence could change that.

A robot could potentially be used in group and one-on-one therapy sessions with the child also taking their friendly, non-threatening partner home with them. The robot could continue to collect data on the child’s behavior and cognition at home.

“Studies show autistic kids interact with technology as well as non-autistic children by the time they’re 18 years old” Popa said. “If we give them a robot it could help them develop social skills comparable to the robot and, ultimately, other kids.”

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have too many connections between the part of the brain that controls their motor skills and the part that controls their sensory, social and emotional skills.

“With the help of robot  peers, we seek to understand not only how these areas influence motor actions but also how those connections influence the social skills, communication, perception of sensations and expression of emotions in people with autism,” said Barnes, director of the UofL Autism Center. “These advances will help us better understand how to design therapies, using technology, for people with ASD.”

Check out the previous story and video about UofL research on robots and children with autism.



Mark Hebert
Following a 28-year career as a radio and television reporter, Mark Hebert joined the University of Louisville as the Director of Media Relations in 2009, serving as the main spokesperson. In 2015, Mark was named Director of Programming and Production. He’s now producing and hosting a radio show about “all things UofL”, overseeing the university’s video and TV productions and promoting UofL’s research operation. Mark is best known for his 22 years as the political and investigative reporter for WHAS-TV in Louisville where he won numerous awards for breaking stories, exposing corruption and objectively covering Kentucky politics. In 2014, Mark was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.