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Robots for Autism

Using Robots to Assist with Autism Therapy

The number of children diagnosed with Autism every year has been substantially increasing since the turn of the millennium. It is now estimated that 1 in 100 children are effected by the learning difficulty.

Autism is a hidden disability, however, Autistic children frequently have problems in understanding social and emotional cues. It is therefore disheartening that 63% of parents with a child on the Autistic spectrum, do not believe their child has access to the educational resources that would best support them with their social and emotional development. This is a serious concern because targeting these developmental aspects at a young age can have dramatic, long-term benefits to an Autistic student. As a result, the development of more innovative and engaging teaching resources for Autistic children has never been more important.

Robots for Autism

Robotic Assistance for Children with Autism

One of the major research projects that has shown exciting results in this field, is the use of robots to assist children on the Autistic spectrum. The use of robots as an educational resource for the development of social and emotional awareness has a multitude of benefits and the foundation to this concept is simple. Robots are non-judgemental. A robot does not care if you answer a question wrong, and it will never get bored, angry or upset. Even the best teachers can’t always control their tone of voice and facial expressions but you can rely on a robot for consistency and that can be a very comforting concept.

The Benefits of Robots for Autism

On the face of it, learning human interaction from a robot might sound backwards or counterintuitive. However, research undertaken at the Autism Centre for Education and Research, Birmingham University has shown that robots are, in fact, a valuable learning resource. Specifically, the research has shown that the use of robots is so engaging that they are able to increase children’s willingness to interact as well as decreasing their discomfort during these interactions.

Robots have less complicated facial expressions, movements and fewer changes in their tone of voice, this allows an Autistic student to pay more attention due to reduced distractions. This sense of feeling more at ease and less distracted when interacting with the robots, allows children to focus their attention on the curriculum presented to them and achieve the academic results they are capable of, and deserve.

The consistency of the robot’s interaction also works to develop a sense of familiarity and therefore comfort between the student and the robot. This allows the students to reach to a point where they know that they don’t have to worry when they are interacting which is beneficial not only to their development, but to their mental health.

Robots Helping improve communication with Autistic Children

Robots and Communication

Communication is complicated. Interpersonal interactions can be a daunting task for somebody with Autism, especially a child. ‘Normal’ social cues such as eye contact and facial expressions do not always come naturally. Instead, this is skill that must be learnt, and robots could be the key to helping teach these types of behaviours.

When interacting with a person, many Autistic children are particularly concerned about what this person might think of them. For instance, What if you answer a question wrong and they think less of you? What if you say something you shouldn’t, and it upsets them? These are problems that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encounter on a daily basis.

Interactions with an emotionally consistent robot do not have these same downfalls. Therefore, the use of robots as a starting point for the development of basic but fundamental social interactions, such as interpersonal communication, is a game changer in the educational community.

Moving from Robotic to Human interaction

Robotic assistance for children with Autism has been studied for more than a decade. Thanks to this research, there are multiple commercial robots available that are specifically adapted to assist the learning development of Autistic children. The most popular of which are Softbank Robotics’ Nao and Robokind’s Milo.

The research has also been crucial in its understanding of the knock-on benefits of Robotic assistance. For instance, not only does the student increase their engagement with the robot as a learning resource, they also increase their engagement with their teachers and even their classmates.

This is believed to be for two reasons:

  • Firstly engaging with a robot encourages a triangular interaction between the robot, student and the 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.
Robots Playing Games to help Autism

Luca Robotics: Learning by Playing

In order to successfully develop this beneficial learning environment, it is important that the interactions between Robots and students are fun. This is achieved by Pivotal Response Treatment, a form of behavioural therapy that utilises play to increase a students desire to learn.

Even generally, Children enjoy playing and interacting with robots for fun. A study by lead researcher Iris Smeekens, a doctoral candidate at Radboud University Medical Centre, has shown that children with Autism respond particularly well to robots, especially when engaging in ‘play’ type scenarios.

Having taken information on board, at Luca Robotics we have worked hard to develop a number of games to encourage successful social behaviour in a fun and interactive learning environment. These include:

How do I feel?

One of the major problems struggles for children with Autism is understanding emotion and empathy. Understanding how somebody may feel, and responding to this appropriately, is a task that many take for granted, however, this can be very complicated for somebody with ASD. ‘How do I feel?’ is a game that tells the student a story about a specific character and pauses at certain points in the story to ask the student how a character might be feeling. Therefore, this is a valuable resource for emotional as well as social development.

Card Games: Can you find?

Card games have been used as a successful method for teaching students with Autism for years. The ability for students to interact and learn non-verbally is extremely important at allowing students with autism, especially severe autism, to interact and communicate freely without the additional social pressure of verbal interactions.

As a result, we decided to blend this with the benefits of robotic assistance. Our ‘can you find?’ game asks a student to find a specific card from a selection of cards. This can be anything from numbers, to colours, to pictures of fellow classmates and teachers. The ability to create your own cards quickly and easily allows teachers to create student specific cards that can be used to further increase engagement.

Body Awareness Game

Many children with ASD struggle with body awareness problems. For instance, they can be afflicted with under-sensitivity or over-sensitivity. Over- sensitivity, for example, can cause problems such as difficulties with fine motor skills, making manipulating small objects such as buttons or shoe laces very difficult. Under-sensitivity, can cause problems such invading friends or strangers personal space or struggling to navigate a room without bumping into people.

Robots can be used to assist pupils by playing games that allow them to understand more about body awareness and proximity. This can involve tasks such as walking around the room while holding hands with the robot, or even playing a game where the robot asks the student to locate specific parts of its body such as its hands or feet.

Interested in Implementing Robotics?

At Luca Robotics we believe the educational impact of Robots for Autism is not only unparalleled, but fundamentally important. As a result, our range of games can be easily integrated into any learning environment, for all ages.

It is our goal to use our tools to effectively work towards improving children’s social and emotional awareness and confidence. For more information on our customisable services, please do not hesitate to contact us.