Written By Michelle McFarlin
Milo the robot is inherently fascinating to kids: he looks like a kid, he talks, he makes a wide range of facial expressions, and he even dances. But what gives Milo the potential to change the lives of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the curriculum that he teaches.
I co-wrote that curriculum with Dr. Pam Rollins, and when my co-writers and I first started imagining what a program for kids with ASD might include, we began with a simple but powerful question: “How do we lay the foundational skills to make these kids successful?” We researched evidence-based practices and selected the ones we felt were best suited to Milo. We also used our own knowledge of kids with ASD, which we have gathered over a combined 50 years of personal experience.
As the founder and director of the Social Communication Connection, I focus on assessment and therapy for social, speech, and language skills for students who have ASD, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and other challenges when it comes to social communication. Combining my passion for helping these kids with my love of technology made writing the curriculum for Milo what I jokingly refer to as “the greatest gifted and talented project of all time.” We were able to leverage cutting-edge robotics technology, tablet technology, and the most current evidence-based practices for teaching social skills to create something that had never been done before.
The curriculum uses social narratives to explain situations that might be unfamiliar to kids with ASD. As Milo is saying the social narratives, the students see “subtitles” in the form of visual icons on Milo’s chest screen. The students are also shown video models on the tablet, examples of the target social skill or set of social skills being performed by actors of a variety of ages and ethnicities across settings. Over and above all of these levels of support is the teacher, who facilitates every interaction that a student has with Milo.
The modules are broken into four main groupings: Introductory Modules (including a set of pre-test/game lessons and the Calm Down module); Conversational Modules; Emotional Understanding Modules; and Situational Modules. Across modules, each lesson begins by defining a target social skill with specific expectations, and breaks down social interaction.
Getting Kids Started with Milo
Students are first introduced to Milo using very simple games like Follow the Leader and Find It. These games were planned to have a dual purpose: on one hand, they help the facilitator to determine if the student has the necessary prerequisite skills of being able to recognize icons, understand cause and effect, and answer yes/no questions; and on the other hand, they help the student learn that Milo is safe and fun, and they create a set of expectations for the student of how Milo sounds and how he moves.
Students who are deemed to be a good fit for the curriculum start with the “calm down modules,” which teach them strategies to manage their emotions. These strategies include counting to 10, using words to describe their feelings, squeezing a stress ball, taking a deep breath, or taking a break. As Milo works with students, the facilitator learns which tactics students prefer so he or she can activate the appropriate lesson to walk the child through the process of calming down using the preferred tool.
After the calm-down modules, students can move on to the conversational modules (to work on greeting, leave-taking, and the back-and-forth of social conversation); situational modules that are designed to teach skills for specific situations; and modules that explore emotional understanding.
We started the set of conversational modules with the greeting module because even highly verbal students with social skills challenges may struggle combining eye gaze, smiling, and a greeting word. Some even skip greeting altogether and may skip to the “meat” of a conversation.
A common misconception about children with social skills challenges like ASD is that they aren’t empathetic. In my personal experience, these children are HIGHLY empathetic, but they just don’t process emotion or express empathy in typical ways. These students may not be able to read the facial expressions of others and tie them to a specific emotion. Even if they do, they may not know how to respond appropriately, to comfort a crying loved one for instance.
The emotional understanding modules start by teaching them to identify expressions on other people. This is where a robot has an advantage over a person because often, social anxiety makes it hard for students with autism to look at other people’s faces for a long time. Not only can they look at Milo’s face, but they can listen to him describe emotions as a sequence of body-part movements. (“When I’m surprised, my eyebrows go up, my eyes are open wide, and my mouth is open.”) Facial expressions are taught on Milo the robot, in still photos of Milo, and videos of Milo. Then, the students are taught to generalize their knowledge by looking at still photos of actors and videos of actors of different ages and ethnicities. This repetition reinforces the lesson, promotes generalization, and allows students to repeat each module or lesson as many times as they want or need.
A Labor of Love
Helping to create the curriculum for Milo was a true labor of love for me. I worked with an illustrator to create the symbols that Milo displays. Many of videos that accompany the lessons were shot in my house, and include my voice. I am proud of the fact that my voice is able to reach kids worldwide, some of whom have not had access to individualized social skills training of any kind. Communication is about connecting with people, and if we don’t give them the skills they need, it really limits their ability to go out in the world and succeed. Having the academic skills to succeed in a classroom is one thing; but if they don’t have the social skills necessary to succeed in a classroom environment, they won’t even be able to be there to learn.
I’m proud of what Milo can do, and we have big plans for what he’ll do next. Now that we have modules to help kids identify emotions, we want to take the next step and help them understand what to do when they react to emotions in themselves and others. We also want Milo to present situational modules for older kids: things like lunchroom procedures, what to do in the event of a fire drill, how to behave during an assembly, and making transitions. Mastering these skills will help kids with ASD to function and succeed in the classroom, allowing them and the kids around them to have a better learning experience.
Michelle McFarlin, MS, CCC-SLP, is the director of Social Communication Connection. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University; and a Master’s of Science in Communication Disorders from the University of Texas at Dallas-Callier Center for Communication Disorders. She is a certified, clinical speech-language pathologist who specializes in early childhood language, social communication disorders, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).