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April 3, 2013

Teaching robot a hit with autistic students

HAVERHILL, Mass. — NAO the robot entertained a school audience by dancing “Gangnam Style” — just like South Korean pop singer PSY.

But when he’s at his day job, Haverhill’s state-of-the-art automaton works with teachers and young autistic children.

Haverhill is among a few school districts in the United States chosen by the Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics company as a test site for its newest humanoid robot.

NAO, as it’s called, was developed specifically to assist teachers working with students who suffer from autism, said Olivier Joubert, a programmer for the company.

According to information provided by Aldebaran, NAO is “a fully interactive, versatile, fun and continuously evolving humanoid robot able to host educative, entertaining and daily-life assistance applications.”

“Most children diagnosed with autism are attracted to technology to some extent because of its predictability, low amount of sensory information to process, and judgment-free demeanor compared to human interactions,” Joubert said. “While NAO cannot cure autism, we believe he will not only makes kids smile, but more importantly teach them important social interaction skills.”

Moody School Principal Maureen Gray said the company tested the 22.5-inch-tall robot at the school before it arrived for good two weeks ago.

“It was incredible to see how well NAO did with some of our autistic students,” Gray said. “Some students who barely react to people had a great reaction to the robot.”

Moody School’s 200 prekindergarten students include a mix of regular and special education students in integrated classrooms, Gray said.

NAO uses two built-in cameras and vocal recognition software to recognize faces and voices, Joubert said. It can even play catch by using its “prehensile” fingers to grasp a ball, he said.

When the program was opened to elementary schools, Haverhill was one of 30 to 40 American schools that contacted the company, Joubert said.

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