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Updated on 28 mar 202410 min read

Robot Autism: Awakening Through Robotics

EducationEducational RoboticsNAO
CLARISSE LE GUYADER
Head of Marketing for public life robots - Hospitality & Retail, Healthcare and Education sectors.

Autism, with its diverse manifestations, challenges the boundaries of pedagogy and education daily. The emergence of robotic solutions opens unprecedented horizons for the educational support of children with autism spectrum disorders. These technologies, as a clever blend of innovation and compassion, have the potential to change the game. 

Transforming interactions, facilitating communication, and encouraging engagement are missions that specialists strive to achieve through technological innovations like teaching robots. Lets explore how robotics becomes the architect of a bridge to the outside world for these children. We offer you a nuanced analysis through the eyes of those most affected: individuals with autism. 

Article Highlights:

  1. Understanding autism and its challenges  
  2. Case studies and implementing NAO, the humanoid robot 
  3. Observations, comments, and expectations  
  4. Why are robots effective? 

Understanding autism and its challenges 

Autism refers to a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions characterised by: 

  • Difficulties in social interactions and communication. 
  • The presence of restricted and repetitive behaviours. 

These challenges are exacerbated by: 

  • Difficulty in imitating others. 
  • Difficulty in interpreting the emotions of others. 
  • Limited engagement in shared attention behaviours. 

As a direct consequence, traditional educational approaches need to be revised. 

Diversity and impact of Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) encompass a wide range of manifestations. From mild to severe, these conditions impact all aspects of learning and social integration. 

This heterogeneity underscores the necessity for personalised and early intervention. The key is to provide support centred on bespoke educational therapy to enhance the quality of life for individuals with autism. 

Technologies and innovative approaches 

Although no dedicated solutions has been released yet, the emergence of technologies, notably humanoid robots and social robots, marks a significant shift. As harbingers of new prospects for treating ASD, these tools, with their predictable nature and ability to streamline interactions, are sources of optimism for families and autism specialists alike. 

Educational challenges and robotics 

Within the educational sphere, children with ASD are recognised as having special needs, warranting tailored pedagogical strategies. Educational robotics, encompassing learning about robots (through tablets and phones) and with robots (via physical interactions, games and verbal exchanges), emerges as a promising avenue for these young people. These tools provide a more engaging and better suited learning environment for their unique needs. 

Starting points and queries 

Is it conceivable that humanoid robots, owing to their predictable behaviour and expressive neutrality, could reduce anxiety? Might they enhance sensory receptivity in young individuals with autism? Could they embody a reassuring, engaging, and pleasant presence? 

These nquiries have led researchers and autism specialists to contemplate the application of such robots. As will be explored further, a marked improvement in communication, cognitive, and socialisation skills has been noted following adaptation to interactions with humanoid robots. 

Case studies and implementing NAO, the humanoid robot 

Using NAO in the educational setting 

Working at a day clinic, Thierry Le Buhé, a specialised teacher, conducted an experiment where NAO was used to engage children in various activities (dictation, reading, imitation, and balance exercises). He noted a significant improvement in the childrens attention and engagement, highlighting that NAO served as an effective supplement to existing pedagogical tools. 

To achieve the most convincing results possible, this initiative was then conducted on a larger scale. For this, NAO was integrated into both group and individual activities in several primary schools for children with autism. Teachers trained in using NAO employed the robot for activities such as greeting, singing nursery rhymes, recognising words, and performing motor activities. 

Following this second phase, the conclusion is unequivocal: NAO facilitates engagement for young people with ASD, thereby easing their education. Moreover, the data collected by the robot provide key observations that open up new insights into neurodevelopmental disorders – in particular, into the learning processes of children with ASD. These children were able to initiate their social engagement through interactions with NAO. Subsequently, they managed to use this new information in their exchanges with peers and teachers. 

Using NAO in the clinical setting 

Case No. 1 

Olivier Duris, a clinical psychologist, led an experiment in a day clinic. This programme involved two groups of six children participating in 50 group storytelling sessions, with and without NAO. 

The results demonstrated an improvement in the children’s understanding and participation in groups where NAO was present. We can conclude that integrating NAO into therapeutic activities had a particularly positive impact. 

Case No. 2 

Another clinical setting experiment was also conducted. This resulted from a collaboration between the University Hospital of Nantes and an engineering team led by Sophie Sakka, a robotics researcher at the Laboratory of Digital Sciences of Nantes (LS2N). 

In this experiment, NAO was used for group activities in preparation for a theatre activity with one or more robots. The robots were given an active part to play in different scenes. Interactions between children and robots were placed at the heart of the experiment. The team observed notable progress in the children individually and an improved group dynamic when they were in the presence of robots. 

Technical solutions and adaptations 

Team HERO 

Initiated by Giuseppe Palestra, a former member of ISIR (Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics), and Berardina De Carolis, a doctor in computer science, the HERO team was established in Italy. This start-up has taken on the challenge of proposing a new approach to education: robot autism. For this, the team developed an interface that offers 18 different exercises with NAO, demonstrating the cobots flexibility as a pedagogical and therapeutic tool. 

Dr Fady Al Najjars team 

By combining NAO with a mobile phone displaying pictograms representing emotions, the team initiated dialogues, motor activities, and role-playing games with autistic children. The aim was to demonstrate that technology can support the development of social and emotional skills in young people with ASD. 

Observations, comments, and expectations 

The various experiments, studies, and initiatives mentioned earlier lead to numerous observations. Each of them, encouraging and hopeful, reinforces the belief that robot autism solutions are a source of progress in the education of autistic children. 

Strong bonds and emotional responses 

Autistic patients develop strong bonds with the robot, seeing it as a friend who encourages them to persevere through therapy time. This relationship significantly improves their engagement and motivation. Moreover, most parents reported that their children imitated and repeated many of the robots responses at home, showing the lasting and transferable impact of robotic interactions on childrens behaviour outside the therapy sessions. 

Improvements in communication skills 

Interaction with robots has led to remarkable improvements in attention levels over the long term. Adaptive robotic intervention systems have enabled significant progress in the social and communicative skills of autistic young people, demonstrating the effectiveness of these technologies in improving autism symptoms. The objective and quantitative methods provided by these systems offer therapists reliable tools they can use to assess the childrens progress. 

Reduction of social symptoms 

The studies presented earlier highlight that the correct and supervised use of robots in autism therapy encourages patients with ASD to adopt forms of social interaction that they were not previously able to. Furthermore, interaction with robots is associated with significantly lower anxiety than typical human interactions. This is attributed to the robots ability to offer effective pseudo-social engagement while simplifying the social context. Indeed, these child/robot exchanges reduce the excessive emotional and cognitive burden that autistic children usually have to deal with. 

Why are robots effective? 

The effectiveness of robots in interacting with children with ASD is based on several fundamental pillars: 

Special affinity of the children for robots 

Young people with ASD have shown a particular affinity for robots, leading to an increased willingness to engage in social interactions with them. This propensity typically exceeds their willingness to engage with humans, meaning robots present a unique platform to stimulate children with ASD to engagement and participation. 

Improvement in compliance and cognitive gains 

Studies have demonstrated that interaction with robots has led to an increase in compliance among participants, as well as a significant improvement in their cognitive development. This suggests that robots have played a central role in encouraging desired behaviours and helping children with ASD to flourish. 

Increase in joint attention and socialisation 

Robotic interactions effectively target joint attention behaviours, which are essential for social development. Children with ASD interacting with robots have shown rates of joint attention comparable to those of typically developing children. This progress has resulted in better socialisation and integration with other humans. 

Generalisation of social skills 

Robots have helped children generalise social skills acquired in other contexts. These skills, including eye contact and verbalisation, are particularly complex for most individuals with autism to manage. This ability to transfer skills learned with robots to situations involving people indicates significant potential for their social development. 

Facilitation of imitation and interpersonal coordination 

Robot interventions with children with ASD have facilitated the adoption of action imitation and interpersonal coordination. This ability to replicate gestures is essential for social and motor development. 

Review and observations for the future 

Based on the numerous programmes, experiments, and real-life scenarios mentioned here, the conclusion is clear: the intervention of robots in autism therapy is extremely beneficial. Moreover, it has been possible to obtain information that advances knowledge of autism. 

Patients can focus, learn, or improve their skills through various interactions with humanoid robots. Furthermore, notable changes in patient behaviours have been observed after only a few weeks. 

Conclusion 

The integration of robotics into the therapeutic and educational support of children with ASD represents a significant advance. Indeed, we can now develop more inclusive, personalised, and effective intervention methods. Robots, such as NAO, are not merely advanced technological tools; they signify a new era of adaptive pedagogy capable of meeting the unique and diverse needs of autistic children. 

The efficacy of these robots lies in their ability to create a predictable and secure learning environment where young people can explore and develop social and communicative skills, free from the stress generated by traditional human interactions. 

The robotic interventions presented here offer a promising outlook for overcoming some of the most persistent barriers in the treatment and education of children with ASD. They not only provide a platform for deeper and more meaningful engagement in therapeutic activities but also open the door to new forms of communication and social interaction for these children. 

However, let us not forget that robotics is not a panacea. Rather, it must be a complement to traditional interventions, requiring thoughtful integration and customisation according to the needs of each child. Thus, the future of this approach depends on continuous research, user-centred design, and close collaboration between technologists, therapists, educators, and families. 

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