Robots Show Promise for Students with ASD

Assistive technology is moving from the shop floor into the classroom in the form of small, human-like robots. Designed to help students with autism, these robots use artificial intelligence to teach social and emotional skills through interactive modules, consistency, and repetition.

 

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Image credit: RoboKind

While robots that can handle automated tasks in manufacturing or can pick up and transport parcels in warehouses are becoming commonplace, successful robot-to-human interactions have been more elusive. That may be changing. 

RoboKind, a Dallas-based technology and education company, has developed robots to assist in more personal, human interactions. Specifically, it has created robots that teach students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) how to better interact with the world around them.

One of its creations is Milo, a two-foot-tall humanoid robot with an expressive face, big feet, moveable arms, and spikey hair. He can walk, talk, dance, has model facial expressions, and uses artificial intelligence to deliver a social-emotional learning curriculum to students with autism. A screen on Milo’s chest can display icons to help visual learners, and above that is a small camera that allows the student to use the screen as a mirror when practicing lessons. Milo works with a corresponding app and under the supervision of a human educator.

 

The robot is part of RoboKind’s Robots4Autism program, which uses applied behavioral analysis and development theory to help break down social-emotional barriers. Milo teaches empathy and works with students at their level of engagement using a modular curriculum. He talks to students in a boyish voice, models a multitude of facial expressions, and provides feedback to the student. Data from the student sessions is passively collected in real time, so educators can focus on the student and the lesson.

A Robot with Assistive Technology

In an in-person classroom setting, Milo is like a teaching assistant that works with students one-on-one or in small group settings. Voice-activated lessons begin as Milo introduces himself and assesses student needs through an interactive module. Subsequent modules address when and how to calm down, when and how to engage in conversations, how to read emotions and facial expressions, and how to interact in social situations, such as how to behave at a playdate or birthday party.

Image credit: RoboKind

Students with autism often have difficulty talking to or making eye contact with people. Milo helps break through that. He is programmed to speak more slowly than a human, and his face is human-like but not so real it’s distracting. In fact, ASD students were able to engage with Milo 87 percent of the time, compared to only 3 percent engagement with a therapist.

Unlike human educators, Milo interactions are always consistent; he shows no frustration or judgement, even when continually repeating a lesson. That repetition is helpful to ASD students. Research from the South Carolina Department of Education indicates that within one year of working with Milo, 90 percent of students were able to master skills presented by the robot and transfer them to in-person interactions.

Milo and Friends

When COVID-19 hit and students began remote learning, RoboKind created Avatar, a screen-based version of Milo, to ensure students with autism could continue learning at home. In addition to Milo, RoboKind offers Veda, a red-headed female robot, and two robots of color: Carver, named after scientist George Washington Carver; and Jemi, honoring Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut in space.

In the US, about 1 in 54 children falls on the autism spectrum, and researchers are exploring how to improve peer interactions for them. Stanford is developing BuddyBot, a mobile app that uses AI to adaptively converse with teens and young adults. SoftBank Robotics, better known for its friendly Pepper robot, started with NAO, a small, programmable robot that can interact with students in the classroom. With greater resources, the hope is that ASD students can interact more effectively with their peers.

 

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