Autism - a disorder characterized by repetitive behavior and impaired social skills - received its first official diagnosis back in 1938. Since then, instances of the disorder have skyrocketed, as have online support groups related to the illness. Sadly, there exists no real 'cure' for autism; the best anyone can hope to do is manage it in order to help sufferers manage their lives and gain independence; this is often possible except in the most severe of cases.
Autistic symptoms must manifest before a child is three years old - and for best results, it's recommended that treatment begin soon after. Unfortunately, this isn't exactly easy. Because of the social impairment related to the disorder, human participants in the treatment can often confuse or agitate autistic children; in severe cases, this can cause more harm than good.
Researchers in Croatia think they might have the answer: a little robot which goes by the name of Rene. Rene makes detection of symptoms in children - and diagnosis of those symptoms - both quicker and easier than traditional methods. The robot is designed to assess a number of different factors, including a child's voice, behavior, and habits related to eye contact.
Rene also possesses software which allows it to adapt to the reactions it receives from children, while giving simple, repetitive stimuli to keep children focused and assist it in communicating with them. As a machine, Rene further helps put children in its presence at ease. This ultimately allows it to send messages to patients which aren't muddled by the white noise which would be inherent with a human clinician.
One mother of an autistic child marveled at the effectiveness of the robot, explaining that, while her son Filip is usually quite inattentive, Rene caught his eye almost immediately.
"Filip actually watched and was focused on the robot which is not his usual behaviour. He normally runs around and his focus only lasts a few seconds. But when he saw the robot, he looked at it, he sat down, he studied it, and he was very interested."
Human doctors need not worry about being replaced by Rene anytime soon, though. For the time being, at least, this little robot is designed exclusively to help them better understand the behavior of children suffering from the condition. Robotic physicians won't be along for another decade or three, I suspect.