A Hong Kong professor is using role-playing robots to interact with children with autism. The Robot for Autism Behavioral Intervention (RABI) program is designed to help kids be more social and resolve conflicts.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder. People with autism may communicate, behave, and learn differently than people without autism. For example, some autistic people have trouble making eye contact or holding a conversation. Some are particularly sensitive to smells, tastes, images, touch, or sounds. People can have mild symptoms or severe ones. That’s why it’s called a “spectrum.” Some autistic people need a lot of help. Others don’t.
More than 1,200 children have used the RABI program since its launch in 2015, says Catherine So. She is an associate professor of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
So says that some kids with autism might be more comfortable or interested in interacting with the robots than with other humans: “We use the social robots to teach them social skills in order to reduce anxiety.” Those social and behavioral skills help enhance their quality of life, she says.
The squat little robots engage the children with role-playing and verbal interaction. A typical class involves two small robots acting out social scenarios. They help children see the difference between appropriate and unacceptable behavior such as tantrums or screaming.
Muse Wong’s five-year-old daughter Abigail has been in the program for seven months. Wong says she has noticed improvements in her daughter’s social and communication skills.
“She is now more active, such as asking people what their names are and who they are,” says Wong.
But some, like Damian Milton, are more skeptical. He is a lecturer in intellectual and developmental disability at the University of Kent. He says that both he and his son are on the spectrum. “Are machines the best things to teach social interaction to people? I’m not so sure,” he told Wired. Maybe more person-centered interaction and using puppets, art, or therapy dogs is best.
The robots certainly can’t replace human interaction. God made us to be in relationship with each other. (Genesis 2:18) But maybe they can help kids practice social skills without becoming overwhelmed. The robots help students focus on the content of the lessons, rather than slight differences in the stories or voice intonations, says tutor Sarah Ng (pronounced ang). After practicing with robots, the students are encouraged to try out their new skills with a human tutor.