+me: the Transitional Wearable Companion for Autism Spectrum Disorders
+me is an experimental device, designed for the therapy of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders -ASDs- and more generally for Pervasive Developmental Disorders PDD. Its purpose is to support, facilitate and foster the development of basic social skills, as eye contact, joint attention, request of engagement, social referencing. It is based on a soft, animal-shaped robot, which can potentially motivate the children to interact with a caregiver, during the therapeutic activities.
The current prototype looks like a soft panda, with big eyes and four paws. Its shape is designed to arise emotional attachment, through a reassuring, comforting, physical contact. When +me is touched or caressed by the child, it responds emitting coloured lights and sounds, according to the site of contact. These are generally very rewarding stimuli for children, and are able to draw their attention.
However +me responses can be mediated by an adult caregiver (i.e. a therapist or a parent), according to child’s reactions. Through a Bluetooth connected tablet, he can modify +me outcomes: for example, he can change the colour of lights or the type of sounds, looking for the most rewarding ones, and removing the most unpleasant; he can even disable some particular outputs if dysfunctional behaviours (like stereotypes) are observed. In a nutshell, the caregiver can create several activities and adapt +me behaviour to the child’s temper. And that is the key idea of the project: the control of +me is shared between child and caregiver, the former triggering +me responses through touches, the latter mediating such responses through the tablet. If a child wants to obtain a particular rewarding +me outcome, he has to interact with the caregiver. This behavioural schema can potentially foster, support and reinforce the development of basic social skills in ASD children, like eye contact, joint attention, social smiles, requests for social engagement.
The device is developed within the project “+me: motivating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders to interact socially through the use of Transitional Wearable Companions“. The project is developed at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, one of the institutes of National Research Council of Italy -ISTC-CNR-, by research group Locen with the collaboration of rehabilitation center INI Divisione Villa Dante. The project is supported by the association science2mind, which was started by researchers from ISTC-CNR.
The main scientific article describing the device and the basic concept is “Transitional Wearable Companions: A Novel Concept of Soft Interactive Social Robots to Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder“, published in 2016, in International Journal Of Social Robotics, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 471-481.
The first preliminary test of +me on healthy children (aged in 10, 34 months) terminated in February 2017. A scientific paper is in preparation. The purpose of this experimentation was to observe the behaviours of healthy children when involved in activities with +me, in order to have a comparative data for next experimentation involving ASD children.
Currently no funds are dedicated to the project. For informations about donations, please contact Beste Ozcan (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Valerio Sperati (email@example.com), the researchers in charge of the project at ISTC-CNR .
A crowdfunding campaign is in preparation (further informations will be available soon).