Robots to Assist Children with Autism

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What is Autism?

Many of us have heard of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but sometimes it is difficult to understand what it is, due to the range of the spectrum it covers. So, before we talk about how robots can be used to assist children with autism, let us firstly understand what the disorder is and how it affects both the suffers and the rest of us.

This is the National Autistic Society’s definition:

“Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.”

  • While all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism.
  • Autism is much more common than you would expect. Around 700,000 people living in the UK are on the autism spectrum, which equates to around 1 in 100 according to the NHS Information Centre, Community and Mental Health Team (2012) report.
  • Although we often think of autism affecting children, we need to remember, autistic children grow up and are autistic adults.
  • 63% of parents of a child on the Autistic spectrum, do not believe their child has access to the resources to support them with their social and emotional development.
  • Autism is currently incurable, but it has been proved that the right support, at the right time can have significant benefits to peoples lives.

And it is with this last point that we should start to think about how we can maximise the right support at the right times for autistic children, particularly in education.

Autism and Education: Where do robots fit?

Supporting autistic children during their education is essential. Autistic children have significant issues with common communication techniques that we use every day. They will often withdraw and isolate themselves, or react in unexpected, and often unacceptable, ways when in challenging social situations. So how do we create a more inclusive environment, and help them master the challenges of social communication?

Many autistic children are drawn to technology, often iPad/tablets or computers. As Haifa University Professor Tamar Weiss observed in a 2012 interview with the Times of Israel, “Kids are attracted to technology, and computers and devices like iPads can appear to help draw autistic kids out of their shell. But sometimes that attraction is not a good thing. Kids with autism ignore social interactions, so they often feel very comfortable with computers, because using them is a singular activity. They can sit with an iPad for a whole day and never look up even once.” Professor Weiss believes the trick is to find a way to use the attraction of technology to help the children become more social. This is where we believe that robots can help.

Using Humanoid Robots

To date, the use of robots with autistic children has been primarily in the field of teaching communication skills. Our own Assist for Autism product utilises the SoftBank Robotics Nao robot to help teach skills such as eye contact, turn taking, and collaborative play. So why does this seem to work?

Many autistic children have difficulty interpreting communication keys we take for granted. Facial expression, voice intonation, nuances in spoken pitch and speed can all become bewildering and act as a barrier to social interaction. So what if we remove some of these factors to allow the child to experience the basic elements of social interaction? Remove the facial expression confusion and use repeatable, consistent vocal patterns. This can allow the child to start to interact, and these elements can be gradually reintroduced as they grow in confidence.

The concept is very simple, robots are non-judgemental. They do not care if the answer is wrong, they never get bored, or angry, or upset. They can be relied on for a consistent experience and that can be a very comforting and reassuring concept.

It may seem counterintuitive to teach human interaction with a robot; however, Birmingham University’s Autism Centre for Education and Research has shown that robots can be a valuable educational resource with children on the spectrum. Their research has shown that the robot can be so engaging that they help increase the student’s willingness to interact while decreasing their discomfort. A great example can be seen is this Huffington Post article about students using robots at Priors Court School.

Additionally, the robots offer a less confusing experience for the autistic student. With less complicated facial expressions, movements and fewer changes in their tone of voice, Autistic students pay more attention and have fewer distractions. The consistency and repeatability of the interactions with the robot also help to develop a sense of familiarity, leading to a more relaxed, less stressful interaction between the student, robot and the teaching staff.

Nao in Classroom


Robotic teaching assistance for children on the spectrum has been studied for well over a decade. This research has led to multiple commercial robots being available, that have specific learning applications designed for autistic children. The most popular of which are Softbank Robotics’ Nao and Robokind’s Milo. These devices, when integrated into a wider educational program, can have significant, positive benefits; not only do the student increase their interaction and engagement with the robot, they also increase their interaction with their teachers and even their classmates. Currently, it is believed this comes from two key factors:

  • Firstly, engaging with a robot encourages a triangular interaction involving the student, robot and teacher.
  • Secondly, the robot can allow the student to feel more comfortable with communication generally, increasing the likelihood of successful interactions between the student and teacher, even after they have finished interacting with the robot.

What about Non-Humanoid Robots?

Much of what we have been discussing has been about teaching communication skills. Something that is much easier to approach with a humanoid robot, however, the use of robots with children on the spectrum is not limited to humanoid robots. New devices are being developed to address many areas such as general wellbeing, general education and technology subjects such as computer programming. Some of these devices, such as Leka which is currently in alpha testing, are being developed specifically for the SEN market, where others are being more general benefits to classrooms with autistic students.

Some of the newest technology, such as MiRo-E, addresses aspects that have previously not been the remit of technology. MiRo-E provides a robot that is based on modelling the mammalian brain, resulting in a robot that behaves more akin to a pet. In its autonomous mode MiRo-E will actively seek out people to interact with, thrives on being petted and can provide a level of emotional support and wellbeing enhancement previously not seen with robotics technology. We are now working with MiRo-E to enhance its capabilities and bring aspects of our educational games and activities to this highly engaging platform.

Finally

Technology, when used correctly, can bring huge benefits to us, personally and to our society. The use of robotics technology for assisting children on the spectrum has been proven over the last decade, and now we must look at how we can move this forward. Whether this is moving into new areas, such as emotional support and wellbeing, or just refining and further developing our use of technology to help with autism and other special needs requirements.
 

by Emotion Robotics

Published: 18/07/2019