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Meet Milo! A Robot ‘Kid’ That Excels at Teaching Social Skills to Kids With Autism

by Kelly Walsh on June 30, 2016

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“This robot, programmed to teach kids about a wide range of social interactions, is proving more successful than humans in helping children with autism, by a long shot.”

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Pam Rollins, an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas. Rollins played a pivotal role in the development of Milo, working with a team of autism experts and robotics designers to create Robots4Autism. Milo is an artificially intelligent robot with a full range of facial expressions to interact with children who have ASD.

Dr. Rollins has been studying and researching autism since 1982, and bought her expertise to the team at Robots4Autism as they worked to develop Milo. Children with autism often struggle with the development of social skills. There are many potential benefits of using an engaging, child-like robot to interact with young students on the spectrum:

  • The robot is generally perceived as a friendly, non-threatening entity, helping children overcome the fears or discomfort they often exhibit when attempting to interact with human therapists.
  • The same lessons and concepts can readily be repeated and reinforced (Milo doesn’t become fatigued).
  • The systematizing of emotions: Milo has the same expression on his face every time he displays a given emotion, making it easier for kids to learn to associate the visual experience to the emotion.
  • Milo isn’t judgmental and doesn’t display conflicting emotions or frustrations that can be confusing to children with autism.
  • The ability to flash visual symbols on the display on its chest, builds on the visual strengths of children with ASD and aides their understanding of difficult concepts.
  • Milo speaks more slowly than most people, which aids in comprehension.

These are just some of the reasons Milo and the technology behind this adorable robot are making a big difference for kids on the spectrum. As stated in this video (below) from a piece CNN did on Milo, “This robot, programmed to teach kids about a wide range of social interactions, is proving more successful than humans in helping children with autism, by a long shot.”

Efficacy & Need

In one test, children were engaged with Milo an average of about 87% of the time, versus a level of just 3% engagement with the human co-therapists. That is a startling difference in effectiveness!

With around 1 out of 68 children born in the U.S. having some form of autism (according to the CDC), the potential for this exciting technology to help them is enormous.

To learn more about Milo and the work that RoboKind and Dr. Rollins are doing, check out their site at Robots4Autism.com. Those wishing to further explore the work on Dr. Rollins may wish to explore her book, Facilitating Early Social Communication Skills: From Theory to Practice.

*Thanks to DallasNews.com for permission to share this photo!

 

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded EmergingEdTech.com. He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by kwalshmusic.com and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Pam Rollins July 5, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Appreciate your reply. The Robots4Autism curriculum is designed to deliver a gradual series of lessons that teach students social understanding, including recognizing emotions, empathy and self-regulation, in a comfortable and engaging learning environment.

Most importantly, the Robots4Autism curriculum delivered by Milo is not intended to replace human interaction. Milo interacts with students with the support of a care provider, or in a group setting with other students. The facilitator manual helps teachers and therapists apply Milo’s lessons in the classroom and practice those skills with peers. The program’s steady progression of social skills lessons is intended to support skill mastery for students, with the end goal being to generalize those skills in social interactions.

To learn more about how schools have used Milo to promote social skill generalization, visit: http://www.robokindrobots.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Robots4Autism_CaseStudy_IESD_2016-6-27.pdf

Kelly Walsh July 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

Thanks ‘M’. It’s too bad your perspective on this particularly technology is so negative. By overcoming the specific challenges faced by human therapists and thereby raising social skills so that these struggling kids CAN interact better with fellow humans, we’re opening a door that was largely closed before.

M June 30, 2016 at 4:45 pm

I often find those I teach with autism do not have difficulty interacting with a screen. They have problems interacting with people. The very issues you stated this robot does not address: fatigue, emotions, expressions, judgement is what causes the most problems. From the article it sounds like the robot also gives a screen hint to indicate what the tone would be. Do we then have to adopt some hand signals for continuity? We need to find a way to teach reading body language and tone in a way so they have an easier time learning to interact with humanity. Social skills, in general, are severely lacking in the younger generations. In my opinion, it’s primarily due to heavy screen exposure and lack of human contact. It seems quite odd to me that humanity’s first instinct these days is to always turn to a machine to solve problems – especially one involving the problem of interacting with humans. I think we would do better with ‘free play’ or ‘directed play’ hours instead of robots. As far as I can tell, this still does not address the very issues that make communication difficult. Frankly – even with the interactive component – this sounds no better than a talking Barbie or Teddy Ruxpin. It’s the conversation without the actual elements that are the most difficult – the very elements where practice is needed. You may as well save your money and just have a texting buddy. It’s much cheaper.

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