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With autism becoming an increasingly common diagnosis, parents are craving new information and treatments.

Many parents of children with autism long for their child to respond with affection or excitement. One of the country's premier research institutions in Nashville is finding that robots may be the best teachers of human emotions.

"Kids are naturally drawn to robots and the technology behind these robots," said Dr. Elizabeth Dykens, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

Doctors said robots capture the children's attention, teaching them meaningful tasks and social skills.

"Once they learn some skills, our hope is they will be able to respond to human therapies," said Nilanjan Sarkar, a robotics engineer.

At a recent behind the scenes program at Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center, autism experts and the engineers they collaborated with presented their latest research on how robots can help children communicate.

"To use the robots to teach their child to respond when their name is called or smile with a shared activity," Dykens said. "These may sound like basic behaviors, but they're really the basic building blocks of what makes us social, what makes us human."

Dykens is one of the center's 220 researchers and clinicians helping those with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead fuller lives.

They created interventions and programs, then published the information in journals. That information was shared with those who need it most, including professionals, policy makers and families who want to give their children a brighter future.

"People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to have work experience," said John Shouse, a parent of a child with autism. "Not just to keep busy, but to have something that lights them up from the inside."

Shouse's son was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He referred to the Kennedy Center as family.

"This place has opened doors to us that we didn't know how to get through," Shouse said.

The Kennedy Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It also houses the NextSteps at Vanderbilt, the first college program in Tennessee for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Tracy Kornet is an award-winning anchor, host and writer. She joined News4 in September 2014.

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