BY GREG FIRN, ED.D
Learners with intellectual disabilities often struggle with traditional educational tools, but robots are a game changer. Kids like robots because they’re “cool” and feel like big toys – nonjudgmental ones.
With over 30 years of experience in education and a passion for helping every child meet their full potential academically and socially, I have seen how effective intervention is for children with ASD, particularly if it happens early in the child’s development. However, one of the major hurdles is that children with ASD often resist therapy.
RESISTANCE TO THERAPY
If an ASD learner over the age of five hasn’t made substantial progress in their social, emotional, or behavioral skill development, the child may have great difficulty relating to the teacher or therapist. Eye contact and social interaction can be overwhelming and result in meltdowns, refusal to interact, avoidance or withdrawal from challenging situations—including the interventional therapy that will benefit them.
For ASD affected children who experience sensory overload, the resulting behavioral disruptions often result in recommendations for in-school therapy or even more expensive outplacement services to learn essential skills. The recommended course of treatment is often three months of therapy for 40 hours a week. At $125 per hour that cost is $60,000. How can we positively impact and lower stress levels for children with ASD so they can gain confidence, learn and thrive?
THE ANSWER IS ENGAGEMENT – WITH ROBOTS
Recent research has found that children with ASD and other neuro conditions are more comfortable interacting with robots than humans. Learners with intellectual disabilities often struggle with traditional educational tools, but robots are a game changer. Kids like robots because they’re ‘cool’ and feel like big toys—nonjudgmental ones. Robots also provide the sensory integration support that’s a best practice in ASD intervention.
Milo, a humanoid robot who “looks and acts like a kid,” delivers an evidence-based curriculum without the use of negative reinforcement to teach social, emotional, behavioral and verbal skills. Kids react positively to Milo: research by the University of Texas at Dallas Callier Center has found that engagement with teachers and therapists take place about 3% of the time, and with Milo, the Robot4Autism robot, 87% of the time. Engagement equals learning, as the following video case study illustrates.
CASE STUDY: CELIA AND MILO
Celia, a seven-year-old girl with an ASD diagnosis, manifested symptoms through behavioral breakdowns (tantrums) when she couldn’t control her internal and external environment, depression, inability to express her frustrations verbally and difficulty completing age-related functional skills at home and in the classroom. Celia lacked the essential language and motor skills to keep up with her cognitive abilities, despite her considerable intellectual capacity. After being introduced to Milo, Celia progressed three full grades in a 9-month period.
HOW MILO INTEGRATES AND ‘TEACHES’ HIS EVIDENCE BASED CURRICULUM
At 2.5-feet-tall Milo looks like a child, is facially expressive and has moving arms and legs. Milo delivers 1500 lessons verbally, and as he speaks, symbols displayed on his chest screen help learners better understand what he’s saying. Milo doesn’t do all the work on his own. He teaches the lessons, along with an educator or therapist, and then collects the student learning data. Milo’s a great friend and instructor who never gets frustrated or tired, and scaffolds learning to build skills and confidence.
In the classroom with children at the middle to lower ends of the spectrum, the teacher can spend a significant amount of time responding to behavioral disturbances. That’s why the very first lesson Robots4Autism teaches is “calm down” techniques, emotional self-regulation lessons to help learners manage their stress and anxiety. In two weeks, most students using the program embrace the method and behavioral disruptions decrease dramatically.
The curriculum developed by speech language Pathologist and Director of the Texas Social Communication Connection and Dr. Pamela Rollins of the University of Texas at Dallas uses treatment priorities, professional experience, and expertise, as well as feedback from the community of service professionals. They used The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder’s 27 evidence-based practices (EBPs) to develop the social skills curriculum, among other well-researched approaches. A comprehensive facilitator’s manual to train educators and professionals for classroom use comes with Milo, as well as support materials for use in the home family setting.
DARE TO COMPARE: Learners working with a therapist and Milo
the robot engage 70-80% of the time compared to just 3-10% of
the time with traditional approaches.
SELF-CALMING AND PROGRESS IN LESS TIME
Milo encourages language, speeds up processing, and teaches specific skills needed to be successful in the classroom with peers and teachers. Parents, educators, and therapists report progress in less time in multiple areas:
• Behavioral: A dramatic decrease in meltdowns and behavioral disruptions.
• Social: A willingness to initiate greetings and social interactions, including friendships.
• Emotional: An increased understanding of the meaning of facial expressions.
• Verbal: Attempts to use language and expanded vocabulary at almost all levels on the spectrum
With self-calming and skills, ASD learners gain confidence and are empowered to try—and succeed. Parents and teachers report that children who formerly didn’t initiate conversations are now saying “hello” and interacting with their classmates, teachers and family members. This level of breakthrough is the start of lifelong social and academic success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Gregory Firn is COO of Robokind and has served as Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Executive Director, High School Principal, Athletic Director, Teacher, and Coach in school systems in Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut, Washington State, Nevada, and overseas. Dr. Firn earned his doctorate from Seattle Pacific University where his research focused on learner-centered education.
Exceptional Parent Magazine; October 2017