Teaching children with autism spectrum disorders how to interact with others can be hard –- usually one learns that with other people, but it's difficult to quantify.

Seema Patel, CEO of Interbots, thinks she has a solution. It's a toy stuffed animal called Popchilla that is connected to an app called Popchilla's World that runs from a mobile device. The toy, a small robot stuffed animal (it looks like a chinchilla) moves and shows facial expressions. The app is a game that rewards children when they get the right answer as to what feeling the robot is showing.

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Popchilla's World, for instance, walks a child through the process of brushing teeth (using the touch screen). The stuffed animal  -– a "digital puppet" — that goes with it will have expressions that show it is happy or unhappy. Patel told Discovery News the idea is to get children with autism spectrum disorders to move from practicing on a touch screen to interacting with people in the real world.

Initially, the toys would be sold to parents and therapists. It currently works with iPads and iPhones but Patel said the company is working on Android and PC versions.

There are some features of the puppets that might initially look odd — for example, the eyes glow in the dark. Red means anger, blue means sad, green means happy. Even though it makes the puppet look possessed, the glowing does serve a purpose, Patel said. It draws the child's attention to the robot's face, something that autistic children can have a real problem with.

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While there are no peer-reviewed results demonstrating Popchilla's effectiveness, Patel said the company is embarking on a six-month study at Carnegie Mellon University. Popchilla is also being used in an ongoing study at the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute exploring the use of social robots to improve attention skills in children with autism. The results of the latter should be out next year, she said.  

Photo: Popchilla at the Consumer Electronics Association Line Show in New York. Credit: Jesse Emspak