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VIDEO: Vision Lab Research Using Robot to Help Kids with Autism

By Noell Saunders

Student researchers at Old Dominion University's Vision Lab have partnered with a team at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) to help children with autism spectrum disorder improve their communication skills.

The research is being conducted in two parts: detection of facial expressions for behavioral engagement assessment and subsequent intervention using a humanoid robot called NAO.

Megan Witherow, an undergraduate computer engineering student and one of the ODU researchers on the project, said if there is a breakthrough with the research, it could change lives.

"In the past, we've done experiments where children came in and participated in trials where they looked at a stimulus on a screen that asked them to recognize these facial expressions and also make different appropriate facial expressions in response to these stimuli," she said. The research group at the Vision Lab has developed machine learning methods that enables NAO to classify facial expressions and provide appropriate encouragement to the children."

Khan Iftekharuddin, professor and chair of Old Dominion's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, added that once the robust correlations between facial expressions and stimuli are established, they could be used as potential biomarkers for future intervention methods to improve behavioral engagement for children with autism.

"If it the intervention works, we can actually package this as an intervention method tool for these kids and get them more engaged in social settings. This could then be picked up in places where therapy is administered and other services provided," he said.

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