Marija Cukelj, whose 4-year-old son Filip is part of the robot project, has experienced the frustration of trying to get specialist assistance for children who are younger than this.
"Filip started to close down when he was 14 or 15 months of age," he says. "He stopped looking people in the eye -- even us, his parents. Within about two months we started looking for help. Unfortunately, it took time because he was 1 1/2 [years old] and we were told: 'The child is too small, anything could happen. We need to wait and see.' It took a year between the time we told doctors something was wrong and when our son got a reliable diagnosis. We lost that time."
According to Cukelj, meeting Rene was a ground-breaking moment for Filip.
"The first time he saw the robot, he simply sat on a chair and watched it," Cukelj says. "For Filip, who is so energetic and who is calmed down by very few things, it was a great success to see him sit down and carefully watch something."
Researcher Maja Cepanec says that Rene has elicited positive reactions in trials with children so far.
"Children with attention-deficit issues, who have trouble making eye contact, react relatively well to the robot," she says. "They watch it and they are excited about it. So far, our experiences have been relatively positive."
Rene was made in France and several research institutions around the world have been using similar robots to work with ASD children. The researchers in Croatia, however, are focusing on using the robots to develop a standardized diagnostic protocol.
Cepanec says the goal of the project is to use the robot to collect data on, for instance, recurrences of repetitive behavior, and to conduct uniform testing of particular behaviors such as drinking from a cup or addressing the robot by name.
"We believe that ASD assessment, empowered by advanced behavioral and social-signal processing, might become more objective and reliable," says Cepanec. This improved process would also include using objective quantitative metrics.
"The robot is equipped with a camera, microphones, speakers, and it can record things we might miss," says Cepanec. "It can code a child's vocalizations, his or her closeness to the parent, how many times the child initiates communication, how much eye contact the child makes, and so on."
In order to build on the project's promising start, the researchers are working with the Croatian National Science Fund and European sources in hopes of expanding the number of children they can include in their research.