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More than one in 100 children in the UK have some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a disorder that typically appears in early childhood, impacting one’s social skills, relationships, and self-regulation. Many intervention and therapy options currently exist, but just as there is no one behavior present in all children with autism, there is no single treatment that will benefit all children in the same manner or to the same extent. Therapies ranged from cognitive behavioral intervention to activity based intervention and many new technological developments – including the use of collaborative robots — are also proving useful. Read on to discover the ways in which technology is helping children and families lead a more productive, happier life. 

Augmented Reality for Learning and Communication

Computer software company PTC has developed a new augmented reality application that helps children learn and communicate. The app, designed alongside scientists at the Boston Children’s Hospital, was found in clinical studies to hold children’s interest and attention for far longer than traditional learning activities were. It is based around a virtual replica of a traditional children’s toy farmhouse with different components such as eggs, chickens, a bran, horses, etc. A visual replica of this toy overlays augmented reality features over the farmhouse. It also reveals nouns, verbs, and prepositions on icons that children can use to create three-word sentences. A voice ‘reads out’ a correctly formed sentence structure, encouraging children to repeat the sentence. Researchers have found that through this system, children who were unable to form three-word phrases are now doing so successfully.

Apps that Talk

Similar and already accessible are a host of autism-centred apps such as Avaz, Talk With Me, Jello, and Proloquo2go, all of which are meant to encourage children to voice out words and phrases. Parents report that children can become very attached to these apps – so much so that they may become fond of the voices and intonation used. If you have a little one who loves spending time on his or her tablet, choosing child friendly toys and apps should be a priority. The good thing about apps created for children with autism is that they are child-friendly in many ways. That is, they allow them to use their imagination, introduce new words that are age-appropriate, and contain many of the fun elements that children love in everyday toys (including representations of kitchen, toys, cars, children’s characters, and more).

Socially Assistive Robots

Researchers at USC’s Department of Computer Science have developed personalised learning robots for people with ASD. The robot is most effective when it can accurately interpret the child’s behavior and provide the appropriate response. In one of the largest studies on this subject, researchers lent socially assistive robots to children in 17 homes for four weeks. The robots processed the child’s needs and reacted appropriately, providing customised instruction and feedback. The study found that the robots were able to detect whether or not a child was engaged with a learning task with an impressive 90% accuracy. As one of the study authors stated, “Human therapists are crucial, but they may not always be available or affordable for families. That’s where socially assistive robots like this come in.”

How can Robots Personalise Instruction?

The USC robot essentially via reinforcement learning (a subfield of artificial intelligence). The robot provided the child with different tasks, congratulating them if they answered correctly and providing tips if they got it wrong. Based on the child’s answers, the robot was also able to cater learning sessions to them. The key to keeping children motivated, scientists noted, was to provide tasks with just the right level of difficulty. Autism, they added, was the ultimate test of the usefulness of robotics precisely because every child with autism has their own, individual set of symptoms that can differ in number and severity from another child. Finding a system that can take these differences into account is key if progress in robotics for learning is to be achieved.

Parents of children with autism often report that their child’s preferred method for learning, is via technology – especially apps for tablets. Studies have shown that new developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and augmented reality may all have an important role to play in education. Children with autism all have different symptoms, which is why AI in particular, with its ability to customise learning experiences, will undoubtedly be the buzzword in education over the next decade and beyond.