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PEERbots Receives ASF Grant to Expand Robot-Powered Telehealth Solutions

The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to funding autism research, today announced that it has awarded a grant to PEERbots, a nonprofit organization that develops social robot puppet software to support telehealth for children, especially beneficial to those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).

The PEERbot system allows therapists to interact with children remotely through a social robot in the room with the child, while the therapist is on a virtual platform with the child. This allows for a more tangible connection and could speed up the child’s progress. The therapist is able to create tailored content in advance of a therapy session or in real time. Therapy is provided through small, interactive social robots designed to fit into a plush body cover. The social robots can be customized by the parent in whatever doll or toy the children prefers at home. In addition, parents can use the app to continue therapy in between sessions to provide continuity and enhance therapy hours.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we have heard from countless distraught families who are watching their children struggling through telehealth therapy sessions,” said Dr. Alycia Halladay, Chief Science Officer at the Autism Science Foundation. “PEERbots is exactly the kind of solution that can help in many of these cases. Having an extension of the therapist in the room via a beloved doll or toy with the child increases the chance of the child engaging with the material, thus improving their outcome.”

PEERbots and related technology have been used for the past seven years by Fine Art Miracles, a Pittsburgh-based service nonprofit that promotes the benefits of creative expression and social robotics. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent surge in demand for telehealth services has validated the desire to bring this product to the wider autism community to enhance and expand telehealth delivered therapies.

The PEERbot system is currently available only on Android devices. ASF’s grant will be used to develop an iOS version and to expand the prototypes that a project of this scale requires. The project will be led by Aubrey Shick, Executive Director and Program Manager at PEERbots, and John Choi, Lead Developer at PEERbots, both of whom have significant experience with developing socially assistive technology.

“2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, but it also put into focus the reality that there is a large and growing slice of the autism community that relies on telehealth to access critical interventions,” said Shick. “Developing an iOS app will greatly expand the number of individuals who can benefit from our offering. As people become generally more reliant on remote solutions, the need for PEERbots will only increase, and these funds will help us meet this crucial need.”

“This is a new type of grant for us,” said ASF President Alison Singer, “but it reflects our organization’s decision to pivot toward investing in practical, evidence-based solutions our families need, especially now during the pandemic. We intend to conduct focus groups with therapists and parents, and to study the effectiveness of this intervention as we continue to work with PEERbots to develop this new product.”

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