Inside the Story: Benni the Robot aims to help children with autism

Inside the Story: Benni the Robot aims to help children with autism (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) — A robot once built to keep kids off the video screen now has a new purpose.

It's now aimed to help kids with autism.

Students at Brigham Young University built Benni the Robot

"The main thing that it does is the child takes care of it," said Jared Workman, an engineering and computer science student who invented Benni.

Benni was originally built to help kids get off the computer screen.

"Really it was the parents that helped us decide it should be for autism," Workman said.

Workman and his team presented one of their prototypes to the new Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at Utah Valley University.

Benni is also being tested in homes.

"He asks me questions, like 'How was your day?' and then I talk to him about it," said David Steed, 8, who has autism.

The Steeds are one of several families who are using Benni. The objective is to interact with the child and build social skills.

"The potential that it has there to help teach things that can be difficult for kids with autism, like emotions and interacting and carrying on a conversation," said Katie Steed, David's mom.

One way Benni teaches kids about emotions is through facial expressions.

"If the robot is sad, they'll have to make it feel better. They will have to play talk with him and play games with him," said Kaylee Christensen, a team member for Benni.

"We want Benni to be the first of many friends to these children," said Jake Fink, who is in charge of business operations.

The road to mass production into homes is still a ways out, but the Benni team believes it could be a game-changer in helping children with autism.

"It's kind of an exciting thing to think that this could be a stepping stone to them making friends or a stepping stone to them learning communication skills," said Workman.

Workman's dream would be to one day mass produce Benni and get the price down to about 250-dollars.

But first, the team hopes to place about 35 more robots into homes for beta testing.

For more information on Benni the Robot, visit this website.