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Robots and Autism

by on November 10, 2012

‘Robots are better at teaching kids with autism than teachers.’ A big claim, but one that Birmingham University are experimenting with.  What is already proven, is that autistic children do find technology and computers a ‘safe places’,  finding they are often motivated and advanced in technological areas than other children. The theory is, that if you can apply technology to social interactions and communications, the autistic children will find it easier to engage and understand. So how does this link with knee high humanoid robots, who can dance Thriller, play games and emulate Thai Chi? Max and Ben (the Aldebaran robots names) are used in Topcliffe Primary School, Birmingham, they model good behaviour and act as buddies, trialling if the autistic children learn social acceptable from the robots better than the teachers.

My initial response was that of worry; the suggestion that autistic children don’t need the same emotional attachment to teachers and classroom buddies. Having autism in my family, I understand how autism can create relationship challenges, my cousin doesn’t understand why you don’t call your ‘Mum’ by her real name, therefore my aunt gets referred to as “Jo” by her son instead. But even if there is a difference in understanding, why would it be okay to replace the friendships most children create at school, with a humanoid relationship. I would have thought that it would be more important for autistic children to learn about social interaction in school, so that they may be taught to understand that we call our parents ‘Mum and Dad’ because of social convention, rather than replacing that social teaching with a robot.

Having read further scholarly articles, my mind relaxes slightly, that the overall opinion is that they should be kept  for entertainment purpose, and that in the short term they are new and exciting, and can produce consistent, repeatable and reliable behaviour, the advance would be needed to lose the predictability of the robots actions, because the entertainment would be lost, so Max and Ben should start thinking about learning a new dance, Thriller might become boring after every break time!

Anyone interested in reading into this further might have a look at this article; it calmed my initial panic of autistic children and automata.


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