Robotic Technology Successfully Engaging Children With Autism
The Movia Robot-Assisted Instruction System Guides Children with Autism Through Interactive Games, Life Skills, Actions, and Conversations
At times it can feel like technology is advancing at such a breakneck speed, it seems there’s a new, ‘must have’ gadget every month.
Actually, this is great news for children with autism. Electronic devices are customizable as well as consistent, so the right device or app can be the key to unlocking more effective communication and social skills, which definitely can improve quality of life for many children and adults on the autism spectrum.
Recently, I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down for a (virtual) chat with Tim Gifford, Founder and Chief Scientist at MOVIA Robotics, Inc. MOVIA is an exciting Connecticut-based collaborative robotics company that has spent the last ten years developing software and evidence-based curriculum to help children on the autism spectrum learn valuable academic, social, and life skills using robotic technology.
MOVIA’s Robot-Assisted Instruction (RAI) system consists of software that enables robots to deliver content and guide children through lessons and games using a peer-like relationship. The communication is intentionally focused on certain activities rather than having conversations or games that are completely open ended, which results in an interaction that is dynamic and not just one-way. MOVIA’s RAI system is semi autonomous, and allows the facilitator to participate by using the laptop to select the activities, feedback and encouragement that will be delivered through the robot. The child engages with the robot by following its directions and responding to it through a tablet. This interaction between child and robot gives a golden opportunity for a relationship to be established, so that the two can become “friends.”
Tim has found this relationship to be crucial to the success of using RAI with children on the spectrum. “The response from kids with autism has been fascinating and dramatic. They really engage with the robots and give them a special status. They treat them as a social entity and an animate character,” he explains.
This may seem surprising, since individuals on the spectrum are known to have challenges when it comes to social interactions, but, as Tim has concluded, “People are confusing and sometimes off-putting. Their nonverbal cues are perceived as noise or static by the child. However, the robot’s features are simplified. They are predictable, consistent, dynamic but safe. A robot is not judgmental. It is infinitely patient, doesn’t get tired, and gives the child the same level of interaction at the end of the day as at the beginning.”
Kids love the interaction because the robot’s consistent, yet dynamic behavior creates trust as well as the robot’s capacity for repetition and non-judgment increases engagement. This makes them a great educational assistive technology tool for children on the autism spectrum.
Added to this, MOVIA’s software is compatible with a variety of humanoid robots, including NAO, QT, iPal, Misty II, and Kebbi, each providing an appealing and nonthreatening platform for social interaction and instruction. This gives customers great flexibility because they can choose a robot based on their individual needs, requirements and budget. These robots have unique features and can model actions, facial expressions, body movements, and even body language to varying degrees. This means a robot can show a child how to put their hand up in class or how to point at something and as importantly, when that behavior is appropriate. The robots can also guide the child through various joint activities, such as yoga, which builds rapport and encourages imitation.
Helping to kick-start the imitation process is crucial when teaching children with autism. Mirror neuron activation occurs in a child’s brain when they watch somebody perform an action and then try to imitate it; this activation is essential for learning new skills. I know from my own work, as a speech pathologist and developer who has focused on creating communication software for kids with autism, that once a child has learned one foundational skill this way, it can be the breakthrough that propels them up to a new stage of education and interaction.
MOVIA Robotics is keen on making sure their RAI can model a vast range of essential skills. Their standards aligned curriculum is created in collaboration with educators, therapists and families and currently consists of over 120