Cover Photo: The humanoid robot iCub, developed and built at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, takes part in an experimental therapy to treat cognitive impairments in children with autism spectrum condition. The iCub robot is used in order to help children to develop skills in perspective-taking, that is to understand the point of view of others. Credit: IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

The Boggiano Pico Center follows nearly 200 children and young adults with multiple neurodevelopmental disorders. 80 of them have been diagnosed with autism.

It is here where the humanoid robot "iCub" is now being employed in the world for the first time. The robot is used for experimental treatment to address developmental impairments in children living with an illness on the autism spectrum. The initial recovery process consists of 50 children and runs until June 2021. The purpose is to further build different training protocols in the coming years that will support kids with autism in order to enhance their unique skills.

"During the training, the iCub robot exchanges one of the foam cubes with the child and observes one of its faces" explains IIT researcher Davide Ghiglino. "Then the therapist asks the patient which image or colour on the face of the cube, according to him or her, the robot is looking at."

iCub is a humanoid open source robot used for research into human cognition and artificial intelligence. The RobotCub consortium has been formed by numerous European universities and has been founded by the Italian Technology Institute and is now funded by other ventures, such as ITALK. The robot is open source, with a GPL license for hardware architecture, applications, and documentation.

The iCub robot can be used to encourage children to develop abilities to understand the viewpoints of others. Indeed, some patients could not grasp the spatial viewpoint of others who stand in front of them, and many other social skills are based on this sort of skill.

"A robot can repeat the same action, in the exact same way numerous times, which would be impossible for a human being"" says Agnieszka Wykowska, the Coordinator of the Social Cognition in Human-Robot Interaction team of IIT. "Our activity at the the Boggiano Pico Center underlines the importance of multidisciplinarity and the use of new technologies like robotics in clinical context"

Researchers have proposed that for some ASC children a humanoid robot like iCub may be a much better counterpart to communicate with compared to a person. This may be when one robot is a human-like "simplified"' version and could be less daunting in terms of the amount of symbols.

The course contains a special table designed by the Wykowska team and produced by an IIT mechanical workshop. The table has tools to communicate with the robot and the child when handling objects. The table features a handheld object-exchange tray, a translucent "window" for a secure contact and foam cubes on each face, in assorted shapes and colors.

The purpose of the training is to validate the effectiveness of current treatment protocols. The long term prospect is for the multidisciplinary team to acquire innovative technologies to care for children and adolescents.

"In concrete terms, I am perfectly able to describe the position of objects with respect to myself and, consequently, with respect to another person. For those with an autism spectrum condition, this competence may not be so immediate" says Dr. Federica Floris, psychologist at the Boggiano Pico Center. "Acquiring the ability to process spatial information relating to a different point of view from one's own, could help to develop skills related to the field of empathy, such as knowledge of one's emotions, their control, recognition of others' emotions and management of relationships "