Can Robots Help Children with Autism in Ways that Humans Can't?

Can Robots Help Children with Autism in Ways that Humans Can't?

Kids love robots. They are mesmerized by their ability to be human-like, yet machine-like. Maybe they like them because they are like a toy come to life. They are somehow able to ‘think,’ react and move independently. Without technical knowledge an adult would have, kids, are able to imagine them as magical, surprising and smart ‘beings.’

In 2012, Latitude Research completed a study with Lego Learning Institute and Project Synthesis, Robots @ School, where 64 percent of kids described robots as human-like companions that were naturals at being social, with the advantage of having “preloaded” knowledge and smarts. Researchers and therapists have discovered that children with autism are no exception to this childhood fascination with robots.

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They say children on the spectrum enjoy them because they are precise, emotionally neutral and predictable. They give the kids a safe feeling environment to learn and make mistakes. Robots aren’t emotionally complex like human adults, and so aren’t intimidating.

Children with autism typically need an ‘incentive’ to be motivated to stay on task in a learning environment. Behavior therapists will generally offer free-time, special toys, praise and at times food as rewards for focus and completed tasks. These individualized incentives occur intermittently during a session, sometimes as frequently as every few minutes.

Robots are so appealing to kids that they become the incentive. The learning process becomes incentivized. When emotions such as excitement are involved with education, learning is amplified.

Milo the Humanoid Robot

Much research has been done in the United States and the United Kingdom involving the development of various robot prototypes.

RoboKind has created ‘Milo,’ a walking, talking, 22” humanoid robot. It has a face with full expressions and cartoon-like hair. This robot is appealing to a variety of ages.

Research shows that kids engage with this robot 70 to 80 percent of the time, as opposed to the 3-10 percent of the time with a therapist.

It can repeat lessons on social behavior and understanding emotions. It engages in the back and forth conversation that normally would take place with a therapist.

Milo can speedily measure eye contact and response times. This makes for handy data collection, which typically is done by a therapist recording data quickly with pencil and paper.

The robot recognizes faces and evaluates progress. Interestingly, it can evaluate student frustration, which is an important measure to gauge when working with children with autism.

Fred Margolin, RoboKind’s founder has said Milo is built for bonding. And of course, bonding is difficult for children with autism. That could be an ideal bridge for bonding with an actual person.

The robot comes with curriculum modules for learning how to interpret expressions and emotions, learn how to be a guest and how to be a friend.

Schools, treatment centers and universities conducting research have purchased Milo to the tune of $5000. This cost actually seems minimal compared to the approximate $17,000 - $22,000 cost to educate a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Particularly if it turns out to be far more effective than traditional means.

Milo prototypes are available for families to purchase also. Robots 4 Autism is a program that is bringing Milo around to schools in the Dallas area as of June 2017.

These particular robots are designed for kids with particular baseline skills, such as:

  • Picture/symbol recognition
  • Are able to answer yes and no
  • Can understand cause and effect
  • Have the ability to use a tablet to communicate

Nao the Sophisticated Robot

Another robot, named Nao, was featured on CBS News in New York. This is a more mechanical appearing robot, rather than organic seeming. It features a small size and more toylike appearance that appeals to small children.

It comes with very complex robot-assisted therapy (RAT) and is being studied by the DREAM Project at the University of Portsmouth. It is one of a few robots developed by a company called Aldebaran.

Nao uses multi-camera systems that collect clinical data. They’ve seen positive results using NAO as an assessment and therapeutic tool.

They are hoping in the future to be able to diagnose kids before they are even able to speak, based on the assessment of facial expressions and responses. The earlier the diagnosis, the more effective treatment can be.

This robot is about 22 inches high, and is humanoid with arms and legs. It is a likable character, combining sensors, software, and motors. It speaks, listens, and responds to its students. Recognizing pre-learned objects and faces, it teaches social skills and language skills.

Nao has consistent speech patterns and uses repetition. Kids on the spectrum need a lot of repetition to learn new skills. They are more engaged and interested in the repetitious aspect of learning with a fun robot that has literal lights and sounds.

Currently, it is remote-controlled by a therapist.

Researchers are looking towards creating a more autonomous version. Many people who study robots do want to keep the human element in the teaching environment. Obviously one end goal is for the child to be comfortable with and interact with therapists, parents and others.

More than 10,000 of these robots have been sold.

Kaspar the Kid-Like Robot

Autism groups have been impressed by Kaspar, “the friendly robot,” as he is called, who has been seen working with kids over the last 10 years. He has helped at least 170 kids in schools and hospitals.

They have seen good progress happen from the interactions. One child, for example, wouldn’t eat near other kids at his school, but when Kaspar showed him how and encouraged him, he started to do it.

Kaspar is not as Transformer-like, as some of the other robots. This one sports hair, a face, and kid-friendly clothes. He is more doll-like in appearance and is more similar to a real child. He has facial expressions, and can typically bring out smiles and engagement like other learning methods can’t.

He focuses on social interactions, encouraging imitation (which is hard for children with autism) and proper play. He can respond accordingly when a child is too rough, letting him know. Social skills such as brushing hair and eating can be modeled for the child to imitate. It’s a lot more fun for a kid to imitate a kid-like toy than to imitate an adult.

Part of the scene is the therapist, who controls the robot and encourages the child to change his behavior as necessary.

Children with autism are very drawn to technology, according to Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism. 

Developed by the University of Hertfordshire, he has 28 prototypes to his name. They would like to see a robot with every child who needs one, according to Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire.

Zeno the Robot for Social Imagination

Another team from Imperial College London, with partners in Europe, did studies with robots and children with autism. This DeEnigma Horizon project showed that their robot Zeno helped children learn about conveying their own emotions and reading those of others.

Zeno has distinctive facial expressions and gestures. Because its expressions are precise and the same every time, they are easy for these kids to identify and learn from.

Professor Maja Pantic, Imperial’s project lead from the Department of Computing says, “children...absolutely love the robot.”

Once you see a few videos displayed on the internet of the various robot types interacting with kids, it is easy to see this is quite true.

The researchers on this team point out that robots can be an alternative method that is “more aligned with the way they process information and see the world.” In this way therapists can come into the kids’ world, in a way that brings kids into theirs.

A more affordable version?

Leka, a small round robot model, is a less complex and costly robot type and was recently unveiled. Its developers displayed it in Las Vegas at a tradeshow in 2016.

The lights and sounds emitted from it are appealing to kids, even though it doesn’t boast a humanoid appearance. It is also specifically developed for children with autism.

This toy rewards progress with the concept of gamification. It uses fun point-scoring and competition to encourage learning. Children with autism, (as well as typical kids) many times enjoy tangible rewards such as points or tokens.

It can be programmed by teachers, and features hide and seek and bingo. It helps with motor, intellectual and communication skills. It plays sound and music, has lights and vibrates.

Its pre-order price is $700 or $800, although there appears to be a deal going on which brings it down to $490, as of May, 2017.

The horizon for robotics in this field

There are other robots being designed and studies being planned. It is exciting to see what is on the horizon. The idea that kids can look forward to their therapy sessions with these robots is a positive development in education.

With children with autism making progress and learning more comfortably, robots may just become part of the mainstream curriculum for kids on the spectrum.