By Dr. Mallika Marshall

BOSTON (CBS) — Children with autism benefit from comprehensive services but those services often come with a hefty price tag.  A local couple has now developed a robot which could one day make services much more affordable and much more accessible.

Eight-year old Raphael Rocha has autism but until recently, his family couldn’t afford the services he needed.

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“It’s heart-breaking,” says Raphael’s mother, Fernanda Rocha.

Laurie Dickstein-Fischer, PhD is a professor at Salem State University and a former school counselor.  She says many families find services for autism prohibitively expensive.

“Children with autism need 40 plus hours a week and who’s going to pay for that?” asks Dickstein-Fischer.

To change that, Dickstein-Fischer and her husband, Greg Fischer from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, put their heads together along with some basic household materials and gave birth to PABI.  PABI stands for Penguin Autism Behavioral Intervention.  It’s a big cuddly robot designed to help children with autism learn.

A lot of thought went into PABI’s design.  It has a cartoonish look with big googly eyes it’s not threatening to children.  It has simple colors so it’s not too distracting.  And who doesn’t love a penguin?

A penguin robot that can help children with autism. (WBZ-TV)

A penguin robot that can help children with autism. (WBZ-TV)

But PABI is a fully functional robot with cameras behind its eyes and a computer in its belly that pairs wirelessly with a tablet.  And PABI could make autism services much more accessible.

“The parent can run it.  A teacher can run it.  The nanny. The babysitter,” says Dickstein-Fischer.

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PABI could make services much more affordable.

“I really see the robot evening out the playing field,” says Dickstein-Fischer. “Perhaps if insurance is only giving you 10 hours a week, the robot can assist and supplement it.

PABI also records and stores all of the data, freeing up the teacher to interact more with the child.

A mother and child interact with the PABI penguin autism robot. (WBZ-TV)

A mother and child interact with the PABI penguin autism robot. (WBZ-TV)

“When the teacher was actually sitting with the child with the PABI and did not have to use a paper and pencil they actually touched the child more.” Says Dickstein-Fischer.  “They were more engaged.”

A pilot study involving 5 children at the Beebe school in Melrose showed kids responded positively.

“This design is close to the point where it could be commercialized,” says Fischer.  “I would think within a couple of years we could get something like this deployed.”

Welcome news to parents like Fernanda.

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“Everything that they think about, there’s a purpose,” says Fernanda.  “And everything that they did with the penguin is exactly what they need.”

Dr. Mallika Marshall