“Some people think he looks like a little monster, some people think he looks like a platypus, some people think he looks a little bit like a turtle, or a bit like a crab,” says Helen Andreae the creator of a robotic toy for children with autism.
Helen developed the toy as part of her Masters in Psychology at Victoria University with the aim of helping children on the autistic spectrum to develop positive play behaviours. These children can find it difficult to understand social behaviours and have troubles interacting in ways that other children can relate to.
Helen Andreae with Auti and different protoypes of the toy (image: R. Beran)
Auti is a round ball containing servos and accelerometers covered in possum fur with four, smooth, white paddle legs which can respond when a child is talking rather than shouting, or patting and stroking rather than throwing Auti around. Auti’s legs can move in different ways so he can walk, sit and stand, and wave. The idea is that if the child is gentle with Auti - talking and patting – the toy will respond with various engaging movements, but if the child is rough or shouts, Auti will pull in and shut down.
“What we did in the trial that we just ran is compare this fully interactive Auti with an Auti that just moved but it didn’t respond to your movements…and what we found is that children with the interactive one, the full version, talked a lot more, children with the active, none of them talked to it,” says Helen.
Helen also allowed the children in the trial to play with a commercially available walking dog toy, and a sleeping dog toy, to give a baseline for the children’s play behaviours, to see how they categorised Auti, and to see whether the play behaviours that they had learned were generalised.
“They were seeing Auti differently to an animal, although not to a statistically significant level,” says Helen.
There are plans to commercialise Auti, but until then the toy cannot be purchased, however there will be more trials of the toy in the next five or six months, for more information contact Helen.