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Research Round-up: Robots and ADHD

As we review the major studies on autism each week, often it can be easy to focus solely on research into the cause and possible cure of autism. But autism research covers much more than that and this week we’re looking at two different studies; one that points to a new treatment method and another that seeks to explain why there can sometimes be a delay in diagnosis due to the effects of ADHD.

First up, while doctors’ increased abilities to diagnose cases of autism have contributed to the rise in reported cases, there is still much work to be done in further removing any obstacles to a diagnosis. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics is pinpointing ADHD as a major deterrent to diagnosing autism, so much so that since early intervention is a crucial factor in treating autism, the researchers are arguing that those who screen for learning disorders also closely evaluate children who have ADHD.

After all, it’s long been acknowledged by other researchers that over half of the children with autism also have been diagnosed with ADHD, or at least share some of its symptoms, such as inattention and impulsivity. In looking at approximately 1,500 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years, the researchers found that roughly one in five children diagnosed with autism also had an earlier diagnosis of autism and that those who received their ADHD diagnosis earlier took an average of three years to be diagnosed with autism.

The authors of the study argue that since the symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity usually are noticeable much earlier than the social communication challenges and repetitive behaviors associated with autism, ADHD symptoms have a way of overshadowing autism’s core symptoms and thus causing a delay in diagnosis. According to Dr. Paul Wang, “If parents or others have any concern about autism, it’s critical to get a truly expert evaluation. The right diagnosis is absolutely needed, so that the right interventions can be put in place.”

In other news this week, researchers at the University of Denver have begun a new study in which they use robots to see if they can help children with autism have more meaningful human interactions. As part of the study, high-functioning children between the ages of 7 and 17 have thirty-minute sessions with the robot called Nao every two weeks. Researchers believe that robots are able to trigger social responses in children with autism much more effectively than people. In addition, toys tend to also be more approachable for children with autism.

In using NAO to measure gaze responses, facial expression recognition, and imitation, the researchers created a robot that has human features and is approachable. According to Mohammad Mahoor, “We’ve seen that autistic children really love to interact with the robots. At first, there’s a little bit of a surprise, but then you eventually see a great bond between the kids and the robots.”

As such, Mahoor and his team are looking to prove the effectiveness of this treatment in the lab first so that it can eventually be introduced as a therapeutic tool across the country. Who knows, in five years you might start seeing robots instead of humans being used as part of treatment!