Explained: Study reveals potential of using non-humanoid robots to teach children with autism

RobotICs have been used as teaching aids for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but these interventions have often been expensive humanoids. A research paper examines whether non-humanoid robots can act as teaching aids and whether they can reduce the workload of human special educators. Experiments conducted by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Academy for Severe Handicaps and Autism (ASHA), Bengaluru, have indicated that non-humanoid toy robots may indeed have significant potential to help educators specializing in autism education.

The paper was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Xi’an, China in 2021. It has now won the Murthy Govindaraju “Women in Computer Science” Research Endowment Award from the IISc for one of its main authors, Nabanita Paul.

ASD is a developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain; people with ASD may behave, communicate, interact and learn differently than most other people. In the paper, interventions focused on communication and gross motor skills of children with ASD. The article details three studies: a toy robot called Cozmo assists special education teachers with verbal lessons on school premises; a mini Tello drone assists educators with exercise classes, still on school premises; and Cozmo, special educators and ASD children connect remotely for verbal lessons. “Talk With Cozmo” sessions (20 children) included narration followed by story-related questions; “Exercise with Tello” (55 children) included rudimentary lessons such as raising arms and squatting; and “Learning with Cozmo Online” (7 children) included various aspects, including three-letter word spelling and phonetic learning.

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The researchers measured and compared learning outcomes with these interventions and without them.

“All three studies showed improved learning outcomes and reduced SS (special educator) prompts, indicating reduced workload,” the paper says.

“Our results show that children spent more time on online intervention courses with Cozmo, suggesting that the use of robots should also be considered when designing online interventions. Cozmo’s roles were analyzed and we found that children showed increased spontaneous interaction when Cozmo acted as a co-instructor,” he said.

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