Running from 2016 to 2019, the DE- ENIGMA (Playfully Empowering Autistic Children) project was one of the biggest projects investigating assistive technologies for autism, bringing together pan-European expertise to develop an intelligent humanoid robot.
Autism-Europe was part of the team that developed state-of-the-art technical systems, based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), to automatically detect and reason about behaviours of children on the autism spectrum during robot-based activities. One of the key objectives was also to test claims about whether predictable robot behaviour might positively impact children’s interactions.
Autism affects children in many ways, but particularly their communication and interaction with others. Childhood challenges with these social building blocks can have significant negative impacts later in life. Robots are thought to be a potentially powerful tool for supporting learning in autistic children because they may be less socially demanding and more engaging than traditional teaching options. However, there are still many unknowns about autistic children and robots.
The DE-ENIGMA project explored the potential of a commercially available robot (Robokind’s Zeno), combined with artificial intelligence, as a near-future tool for autism education. Focusing on emotion recognition skills, a key social domain, DE-ENIGMA has iteratively developed and tested prototype interactive games with Zeno.
These games are targeted at primary school-aged autistic children with additional intellectual disabilities, limited spoken communication, or both. They provide a platform for studying how autistic children interact with different elements of DE-ENIGMA technology and how different robot characteristics may impact them.
During the project, the DE-ENIGMA system has gone through successive design phases, evolving each time as we have learned from experiences with children and schools. Since beginning in 2016, the project has developed from using highly structured activities with clearly-defined steps to a more game-like style of interaction that gives children more chances to explore emotion content at their own pace and choose how to interact with Zeno.
Autism and robots
Recent developments in human-robot interaction technology have led to attempts to teach emotion recognition and expression to people on the autism spectrum, using humanoid robots. Preliminary findings suggest that these attempts are effective as an integral part of the psychoeducational therapy for autistic children. The main reason for this is that humanoid robots are perceived by these children as being more predictable, less complicated, less threatening, and more comfortable to communicate with than humans, with all their complex subtleties and nuances.
The project coordinator, Universiteit Twente (The Netherlands), worked closely with the other partners: Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine (United Kingdom), the University of Augsburg (Germany), Institute Of Mathematics Simion Stoilow Of The Romanian Academy (Romania), University College London (United Kingdom), Savez udruzenja Srbije za pomoc osobama sa autizmom (Serbia), Autism-Europe (Belgium) and IDMIND – Engenharia De Sistemas LDA (Portugal).
About Horizon 2020
Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly 80 billion euros of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.