The iPhone and iPad is commonly touted as today’s go-to therapeutic tool, specifically when dealing with children. With monitored screen time, it enables the development of learning, literacy, and physical and fine motor skills. Apple even has research speaking to this fact, proving that the iPad has positively affected student learning and test scores. Similarly, it’s been employed in therapy sessions as a communication device, choice board and a vocabulary builder.
While it’s great seeing this level of integration of tech, especially with children (as they are, after all, digital natives), there’s more to tech in therapy than the iPad—in fact, there has to be. Applications within tablets create limited man-machine interactions, meaning the most a child can get out of any given app is restricted by the app itself. The interaction eventually becomes static and a child’s development is more associated with the device itself rather than the child’s surroundings—a crucial element when addressing the needs of children with developmental disorders, such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.
In order to engage and enable children with developmental disorders to live the exceptional lives they deserve, we need to think a bit outside the box.
The Case for Social Robotics
Developments in robotics today are simply astounding. While we aren’t quite at the level of creating androids known in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, we’re making advancements in other areas. We have dueling robots representing nations, Hanson Robotics and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories recently debuted Sophia, a synthetic android, and Boston Dynamics made headlines with its Atlas prototype, showing the robot squat, move objects, and pick itself up after being knocked down.
One field that’s currently burgeoning is social robotics, where robots are designed as autonomous humanoids capable of interacting and communicating with humans. The applications are varied, with one in particular being that robots, when designed and implemented appropriately, can make for excellent communication and education intermediaries for children—and adults even—with special needs.
It is known that children with developmental disorders—especially children with autism—feel comfortable around robots as their actions are much more predictable than humans. And it’s not just humanoid robots—some studies (Kozima, Nakagawa, & Yasuda, 2007) show that designs that mix human characteristics (such as eyes or human-like movement) with simple robotic elements facilitate lasting engagement. A robot is programmed to respond in a certain way, and to an extent their reactions are limited—at least, when employed in a therapy setting, they should be! Children with autism and other developmental disorders tend to shy away from other children and caregivers for the simple fact that humans are unpredictable—and what one cannot predict they fear. With robots, it’s all preprogrammed, and children learn that certain inputs will always yield certain outputs, making the robot an approachable and curious tool to capture the attention of children.
And attention is key—without it, breaking through and making progress with a child is nearly impossible. Kids love toys, kids love gadgets, and when designed properly, a robot is a toy. Suddenly, children are no longer dreading sessions with a therapist—they’re looking forward to playtime.
Securing interest, however, is only half the battle. Social robots, when employed in a therapy environment, need to engage children effectively in order to build on progress and help children become the exceptional people that they are. Interactions between a child and any robot must be guided by a professional. When guided, they can be used towards motor skill, social, communication, and spatial awareness development. In short, games or activities should be constructed around the use of a robot to reinforce a child’s social and cognitive learning.
We also cannot forget that, if technology in the form of a robot is used as a tool in therapy, it is also likely capable of collecting data on child-robot interaction—which is key. It’s an added benefit to the use of social robotics, as while a robot can be used as a tool, it can also be used as a measuring device to monitor progress over time. Robots can be outfitted with a variety of sensors to track how children touch and manipulate a robot, how long it takes for a child to respond to a question or action, or how long a child is able to maintain eye contact. This data can be tracked and shared with researchers as well to offer further insight into the potential role of social robotics in therapy.
Robots Over Humans?
The idea of using robots with children, particularly children with autism, isn’t an entirely new concept—it has been around and there are a number of companies today who operate in this still growing space. That said, it isn’t a field without its critics.
There’s a concern that if robots are used in therapy sessions, especially with children who are still developing their own identities, it could create a preference for robot interaction over human—which, yes, could be problematic. However, it’s important to note that a child’s use with a robot is guided. The robot is a facilitator, not the sole therapeutic conduit used in treatment. Research conducted by Kerstin Dautenhahn and Ian Werry (2004) of the University of Hertfordshire support this notion (and for more on this subject, read about the Aurora Project, an ongoing series of studies on the applications of robots as therapy tools for children with autism).
Unlike an iPad, a robot, especially one that encourages interaction via games and activities, is grounded in use by its immediate environment. When used side-by-side with a therapist, the human element is still present, and when used as a toy with other kids, the human element becomes even more prominent. Children in today’s age are digital natives, born in an era of ubiquitous technology, and the use of robotics opens a gateway to communication with other humans. Robots don’t replace human interaction—they supplement it.
To kids, robots are toys, and if they’re able to facilitate treatment and bring children together to play activities, and are proven to be effective therapy tools, then we should consider incorporating them into standard practice for children with developmental disorders. What do we have to lose?
For more information, visit https://leka.io/.
Dautenhahn Kerstin, & Werry Ian. (2004). Toward interactive robots in autism therapy: Background, motivation, and challenges. Pragmatics & Cognition, 12(1), 1–35. http://doi.org/DOI: 10.1075/ pc.12.1.03dau
Kozima H., Nakagawa C., & Yasuda Y. (2007). Children-robot interaction: a pilot study in autism therapy. Prog. Brain Res., 385–400. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0079-6123(07)64021- 7