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Heartspring testing robots to help kids with autism

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, at 6:37 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, at 8:13 p.m.

Heartspring Uses Interactive Robot

Heartspring is using an interactive robot to work with autistic children. (Video by Jaime Green, ...

For a group of elementary students at Heartspring, a center for children with autism, robots may be the key to better human interaction.

The students last week danced “Gangnam Style” with a robot, imitating its moves and getting used to its presence.

Teachers at Heartspring hope the benefits of working with the robot go far beyond dancing.

The robots, called NAO Humanoids, are from Aldebaran Robotics in France. The $16,000 robots are fully programmable. They can recognize objects, faces and speech. If one falls, it can pick itself up.

The overall goal is to get students to transfer what they are taught by the robots to their interaction with other people, said Wayne Piersel, director of clinical services at Heartspring.

Center staff members plan to do a lot of research on whether the robots actually improve students’ behavior, Piersel said.

One of the first things they plan to program the robots to do is teach kids appropriate greetings.

“A lot of the kids we work with ... don’t make eye contact, they don’t demonstrate appropriate greeting behavior, which of course is very much part of our culture,” Piersel said. “Looking at a person and saying their name, pausing while they return the greeting and extending their hand.”

After students work with the robot, Piersel said, they will periodically have a person come in to see whether students are more likely to greet him or her. Data on that behavior and other instances will be collected, so staff members can reach objective conclusions about the benefit of the robots.

Technology is especially attractive to students with autism, Piersel said.

“It will get their attention, and if it gets their attention, then they might be more receptive to learning the different skills or aspects that go into an appropriate greeting,” he said.

Heartspring staff members also hope to use the robots to teach calming skills to children, teaching them to recognize their emotions when they are upset as well as a strategy to deal with those emotions.

Piersel said the staff also want to use the robots to enhance students’ speaking skills, including helping kids put words in the correct sequence.

Even though those skills can be taught by people, Heartspring wants to see how the consistency of the robot affects how well students learn.

“A critical part of any programming is consistency,” Piersel said. “The more consistent we are in teaching a new skill, the more likely we are to learn it, especially since our kids have a difficult time dealing with subtle differences. This will give us a way of providing the instruction in the same way every time.”

Piersel, who describes himself as a “resident skeptic,” says he is often wary of fads that claim to help children and adults with autism.

Over time, if the center determines that the robots do not improve behavior, it will move on to other ideas and programming.

“There are a lot of new things that keep coming out,” he said, and almost all of them are accompanied by claims that they will benefit or improve the lives of children or adults with disabilities.

“When it comes to things like this, what I want to look at is: What does the data tell us? What does the research tell us? Can this tool be used in a way to enhance the education and treatment of the students we work with? It’s not enough just to say it is; we want to be able to demonstrate through well-designed research that it’s useful and more useful than other tools we’re using,” he said.

Heartspring’s IT staff will work with its research team to program the robots for different tasks, said Dusty Buell, director of marketing at Heartspring.

Heartspring hopes to create partnerships with universities that are interested in this area of research.

There hasn’t been a lot of research done on robots as a tool for children with autism, Buell said, and Heartspring’s model of outpatient pediatric services and on-campus housing lends itself well to studying the effects of the robots.

“We are seeing this and as an organization looking at a vision for our future – where we want to be and what we want to be seen as,” Buell said. “We want to be an industry leader, a national model of utilizing technology and applying it to help children with moderate and severe autism and other disabilities that we serve here.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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