The Social Challenge

Groundbreaking technology that could have significant implications in autism therapy.

GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Margolin

CREDIT Robots4Autism Renaming-ZenoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced a study stating 1 in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – up 30 percent from the previous estimate of 1 in 88, which was released in 2012. The continual increase of prevalence leads to a sense of urgency to answer the many questions raised by these numbers.

But with more than 3 million people in the U.S. diagnosed, we’re still uncertain of an autism cause or cure.

Fortunately, incredible strides have been made in autism treatment and intervention. The widespread use of tablets and mobile technology has resulted in a proliferation of apps that assist individuals with special needs. The trend also increased the awareness of assistive technology and communication devices, making them more accepted in classrooms and daily life. And more accurate diagnoses at earlier ages means early intervention is implemented more often, which has the potential to decrease the $3 million individual lifetime costs by up to two-thirds.

A robot can repeat the same lesson over and over again without growing tired or frustrated.

I embarked on a journey to help the autism community, seeking to use my experience to add to the diverse toolset now available for helping these individuals grow and thrive. My background in mechanical engineering and computational neuroscience led to a career in robotics research. After spending a few years designing and building humanoid robots, it dawned on me: this groundbreaking technology could have significant implications in autism therapy.

Many individuals with autism struggle with social interactions. The unspoken social rules that are ingrained into us come across as a foreign language to those with autism. They also struggle to communicate their emotions. Consider the vast number of facial expressions and gestures we convey on a daily basis, or the effort we put into reading those of others. For an individual with autism, it feels like living in a different culture, unable to recognize and respond to social cues.

This is why social and emotional learning is critical for students with autism. The challenges posed by developmental delays, combined with the strict social rules of our society, can create a significant disconnect for students with autism. Educators must provide guidance in these areas to achieve the best possible outcome for their students – independence later in life.

Many students with autism are drawn to technology. Introducing a robot into the classroom could easily increase motivation. Additionally, robots serve as a non-threatening platform. They don’t possess the same unpredictability as humans – they’re patient and even-keeled. They’re, well, robotic. A robot can repeat the same lesson over and over again without growing tired or frustrated.

Furthermore, the robots we developed have human-like faces, which can display an array of natural facial expressions. Students with autism are comfortable with the robot, and are more inclined to engage with it. As they engage, they mimic facial expressions and learn to pair them with the appropriate emotions.

The robot is not intended to replace the educator, but to extend his or her reach. It’s a transitional medium – one that motivates students to learn, but is easily transferable to real-life situations. The robot teaches natural social interaction, including appropriate eye contact and reacting to others’ facial expressions. These lessons can then be duplicated at school, home and in other settings.

Initial interactions between students and the robot have been encouraging. Two children were reluctant to engage with their educators and therapists, but once introduced to the robot, began speaking with it almost immediately. Once these children become comfortable with robot interactions, the goal is to translate the engagement into daily life – enhancing relationships with family, friends, educators and therapists.

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Interested in more information? Visit the Robots4Autism website, and meet our robot. In fact, he needs your help! He’s new to Earth and is looking for a human name. Do you have a suggestion? Enter the Name Our Robot contest today!

Richard Margolin received his Bachelor of Sciences in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. Prior to founding RoboKind, he performed robotics research at The Manufacturing Automation and Robotic Systems (MARS) Lab and the Heracleia Human Centered Computing Lab. Richard began designing and building humanlike robots in 2008 as the Director of Hardware for Hanson Robotics.

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