Why Use Robots with Children with Autism? (part 3)

by Emotion Robotics on the 13/01/2015 15:52:27

Back in May this year I posted two articles (1, 2) explaining a little about why robots are being used to help children with autism, and how they are being used. As I said back then, this is early days for this kind of work, and there is still a lot to learn and discover.

In this article I would like to expand on some of the things mentioned at the end of part 2, and I will do this by introducing two of the success stories where Nao has helped children start to achieve their potential. 

One of the people who has been involved at Topcliffe Primary School is Dr Karen Guldberg, Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research at Birmingham University. She has written a very interesting piece about why Nao works at Topcliffe and illustrated it with the following story about Daniel:

"Daniel is a lovely seven year-old boy with autism who enjoys playing with Max and Ben, the two NAO robots in his school. At the end of an event we organized at the school in November 2012, Daniel stood up on the stage and made an impromptu speech to an audience in the main hall of the school. He opened it with: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please listen to me. I have something important to tell you.”

He then proceeded to give the listeners a beautiful and imaginative ‘stream of consciousness’ speech welcoming everybody to his ‘robot museum’. His impromptu talk included a description about how the robots worked and how much he loved them. He held up postcards with pictures of NAO and his friend acted as his assistant. Daniel used the postcards to explain to the audience what NAO could do, how many different robots there were and what colours they were.

I cannot do Daniel justice or capture the magic of his words here, but I can tell you it was one of the high points of my year. The work with the robots had given this child the confidence to stand up in front of a big group of adults and give a speech. It had motivated him to find out all sorts of things about the robot, which he then explained to the audience. It helped him work in partnership with his friend who also has autism. And this is a child who has difficulties with social communication."

Our next success story is 5 year old Lucas:

"Lucas is an intelligent boy but, due to an apraxia of speech, has trouble communicating with others, which often frustrates him. Because of this, and his diagnosis of autism, Lucas is usually introverted in class and has trouble maintaining eye contact. [....]

When Lucas first met NAO, the two foot tall humanoid robot, he was a little timid. The robot was a new being in his world and school routine and he was not quite sure how to react to it. Even though he started in the back of the class when NAO first began to move and talk, curiosity quickly brought him to the front and by the end of his first day Lucas was touching, moving, and trying to communicate with the robot.

Over time their relationship grew and Lucas began to open up more to NAO. He very soon became the ‘resident expert’ on using the robot, showing others (both children AND teachers) how to engage the robot as well as exit out of different tasks. Lucas also took the time to get to know NAO, who the school affectionately calls Chip, gently exploring his arms, joints, and sensors trying to figure out how the robot is able to move so fluidly, unlike many of the other teaching tools in the classroom.

The most amazing transformation Lucas experienced with NAO was in relation to his communication. Being able to be understood by the robot changed Lucas’s whole persona in the classroom. The former shy and timid Lucas began to gain noticeable confidence in himself. He seemed amazed to learn that his communication skills worked not only with NAO but also with teachers and classmates."

As you will have noticed, both of these stories are around the Nao robot and the ASK NAO initiative. I make no apology for this. Any of you who have been reading my blog will know that I am on the Nao Developer Program, I am a Nao owner and, more recently, I have been lucky enough to be involved in developing Nao behaviours for children with autism.

So why do I think this is important? Well, to be honest with you, once you put aside the pleasure of seeing these children working and playing with Nao, the answer is very straight forward. As someone interested in robotics and how we will use robots in the future, I have found an area where robots are making a difference today. The development I am doing isn't theoretical, it isn't about a better machine or faster processing algorithm. It is about being part of the development of a system that is already, today, in the real world, helping children with autism unlock their potential and changing these children's lives forever. Who wouldn't want to be a small part of that?

So as a closing thought, if you are a developer, a teacher, a parent or anyone involved with autism, why not come over to Aldebaran Robotics' ASK NAO forums and share your experiences so that we, your developers, can build you better tools.

I know I can sound like an evangelist or even a salesman, but I do not work for Aldebaran or ASK NAO, I am an independent software developer who chooses to do my Nao development in my spare time because I believe it is important. I hope a few of you reading this may think so too and come and help us.