We're trialling social robots as tools to support education and therapy for children on the autism spectrum.

The challenge

Supporting children with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder

For some children living with autism spectrum disorder and/or an intellectual disability, developing academic skills as well as communication and social interaction skills can be a significant challenge.

Often, these children need additional support to improve their competence in these areas. Much of this support is provided through digital technology, where the learning environment is judgement-free and many children feel more engaged and at ease.

While considered safe and effective, learning through technology can lose its merit when the student becomes dependent on the virtual world, or is unwilling or even unable to translate skills learned in that world into the real world.

Our response

Social robots to support the academic and social development of children with autism

Our researchers at the Australian e-Health Research Centre have written software modules for five different social robots to support therapy and education for children with intellectual disability and autism.

Kaspar (the child) and Paro (the seal), two of the social robots being trialled.

Social robots provide a compromise between the virtual and real world, as they have a physical, 3D presence and can exhibit complex behaviour patterns, but appear less intimidating than humans.

We have been trialling social robots NAO, KASPAR, PARO, PEPPER and ROBOTIS in a variety of settings in partnership with the University of New South Wales, Autism Spectrum Australia, Queensland University of Technology and Murray Bridge High School in South Australia.

For more than two years, NAO robots have been used in the classroom at Murray Bridge High School, where they support secondary students across a range of disciplines, from science and yoga to IT and social skills.

Humanoid robots KASPAR and PARO are trialled in a clinical setting, where a therapist facilitates the robots’ interaction one-on-one with a child, specifically focussing on developing the child’s social and communication skills.

The results

Ongoing trials suggest social robots are effective

Our long-term studies show that robots have the potential to enrich the learning experiences of students. Importantly, some of the benefits we observed in participants when they interacted with robots are also transferring to their interactions with other people.

Humanoid robots, such as NAO and KASPAR, have shown to help facilitate therapy for children on the autism spectrum, helping them to develop social interaction and communication skills.

Our trials are ongoing, and our scientists will keep collecting evidence and modifying the programs to ensure the robots are as beneficial as possible and easy for teachers and therapists to integrate as part of their everyday classes and sessions.

Our aim is to make this technology as accessible as possible for schools around Australia.

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