A Robotic Education: How Robots Are Helping Autistic Children Learn


A robotic education may very well be the next step up from online learning — and one that will pave a path for the future of teaching. They may not be the flying cars The Jetsons always sold to us as children, but robots are close enough. A study conducted by electric engineering and computer science department at Vanderbilt University and published in the journal Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering supports the theory that robotic technology especially appeals to children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

ASD is a term that refers to the broad range of disorders that affect brain development. Characteristics of individuals with ASD include difficulties in communication and social interaction, intellectual impairment, fascination with repetitive patterns, and other health issues such as difficulty with sleeping. Research also says that children with ASD are more likely to develop other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. According to Autism Speaks, autism is the fastest growing developmental issue within the United States. There is also no cure for it. 

The study tested six children with ASD and six children in stages of normal development. The robots themselves were built as humanoid figures equipped with cameras and real-time head tracking. Based on a child’s head movement, the robot gives the child simple instructions appropriate to the interactive environment they located. If the child does not obey the instruction, then the robot repeats itself. The study found that on average, a child with ASD spent more time staring at the robot than their normally developing counterparts did.


In the video above, Julie Crittendon, an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Vanderbilt, says the importance of the robots in ASD learning has the possibility to transfer over to human instruction. 

Researchers partnered with the University of Connecticut and Movia Robotics are engaging in similar research. Movia Robotics CEO Timothy Gifford says that the goal is to eventually make the robots commercially available, so that schools and students would be able to access their benefits outside of study limitations.

The two-foot tall robots hail from a French company called Aldebaran Robotics. The robots themselves are apart of the ASK NAO incentive (Autism Solution for Kids). As of April 25, Aldebaran said more than 3,500 units of the NAO robot have been sold all across the world. According to a study cited by company statistics, social interactions and stronger verbal communication skills increase by 30% when a robot and ASD child are in the same room interacting. Those interactions then tend to carry to therapists and parents. The reason that children with ASD also tend to respond well to the robots is the the predictability in their technology and the reduced external stimuli that the children have to take in. 

While the robots are not meant to replace parents, teachers, or therapists altogether, their value as a learning tool says much about the advancement of technology in 2013. The tech elites of our generation are developing much more feasible projects that, in the end, seem to overshadow the glamour of any flying vehicle.