ASD Learners and Social Robots
For Teachers

A New Idea in Autism Intervention: Social Robotics

By Erin Flynn Jay September 3, 2014
ASD Learners and Social Robots

Because there are so many different types of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), special education teachers use a trial-and-error method of finding an ASD student’s proper accommodation, support and placement in school. Children who are on the autism spectrum often have trouble understanding complex emotions and social cues and may require more repetition than average learners.

Social robotics as an effective education tool for ASD learners

However, many ASD students respond positively to learning with robots. This fact inspired CEO Fred Margolin to found Robots4Autism, a branch of his robotics company, Robokind.

“There had been a lot of clinical research that showed children with autism responded well to robots, specifically robots with faces. My son is a leading expert in robotics, so we were both inspired to create a robot that could help the lives of children on the autism spectrum,” he said.

RoboKind designs and builds robots with advanced capabilities that can be used for autism intervention, special education, STEM instruction and university research. The company’s robots can walk, talk and teach while using lifelike facial expressions and natural social interactions.

The number of students with autism spectrum disorders has grown dramatically in 10 years

From 1992 to 2002, the number of children born and eventually diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder increased 119 percent. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that currently, one in 68 children are on the autism spectrum.

An autism intervention program using social robotics creates a high level of engagement between the student and the robot and allows students to progress at their own speed with lesson repetition. Special education teachers receive real-time data about student progress.

According to Margolin, there is a big difference between verbal and nonverbal children on the spectrum and a similar contrast between students who are on the lower versus higher end of the spectrum in terms of social interaction.

“Because of these differences, it is impossible to use a one-size-fits all approach to treatment,” he said. “Additionally, it can be hard for teachers to remain calm and repeat lessons in the way that a robot can when working with children on the autism spectrum.”

Learning robots keep ASD student engagement high

Robots4Autism robots deliver developmental instruction modules for emotional and social behaviors using a combination of videos and questions that allow ASD children to participate in their learning.

“This creates a tremendous amount of engagement that is so much different than tools like tablets and laptops. The robots can recognize if the child is paying attention and adjust to keep the child interested if they’re not paying attention, as well as repeat lessons,” Margolin added.

In many instances, a lot of repetition is required before a child can make progress on certain issues. “Without a proper amount of repetition, the points get lost and progress cannot be made. The robot is effective because it can present the interventions over and over without showing anger or frustration,” he said.

The robot allows the teacher to monitor and measure eye contact, interest, frustration, quickness of response and whether the child answers correctly or incorrectly during therapy sessions.

“These measurements are correlated to how the lessons are being received and the progress that will be made by the child. The robot measures things that were not possible before, and allows for the lessons to be adjusted or material to be repeated or skipped,” said Margolin. “This leads to better therapy outcomes because data can be shared and analyzed.”

Tips for working with ASD students

Margolin offered three reminders for classroom teachers who work with ASD learners:

  • Use resources that keep students with autism engaged and allow for repetition
  • Monitor progress and make adjustments as you go
  • Remember not to lose patience; ASD learners can be more sensitive to aggravation and frustration than average students

“Even though children with autism seem oblivious to certain things, they do pick up anger or frustration in adults which can be an obstacle to learning and making progress,” he concluded.

Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.

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