In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. II also discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. Technology might provide some help to overworked parents and therapists.
Carey Dunne at Mother Jones:
Brian Scassellati, a professor of computer science, cognitive science, and mechanical engineering at Yale University, says that rather than replacing autistic children’s relationships with humans, social robots can help improve those relationships—as long as they’re used the right way. “Anytime you see a robot and child alone together, that’s probably not going to be successful,” Scassellati says, stressing that many professionals who teach children with disabilities with the use of robots still don’t understand this. “Successful interventions involve the child and the robot and someone else, like a parent or sibling. When they sit down like that, instead of the child just learning to engage with the robot, they’re learning how to interact with the parent or sibling. And that’s what sticks around when the robot’s gone.”
In a 2018 study co-authored by Scassellati, 12 children and their caregivers practiced communication skills with a robot named Jibo every day for 30 days. Researchers saw the children’s overall communication and joint attention improve, even when Jibo was not present.
Scassellati suggests that even in a world with unlimited human therapists, robots would offer unique benefits for autistic children. Skills training for autism often involves repetitive tasks, which robots can perform indefinitely without getting tired or frustrated, offering consistent positive reinforcement. When a robot is involved, children are more likely to participate in certain therapies, like “mastery therapy,” in which a therapist asks a child to teach a skill that they have mastered to another person.
Robots also have certain advantages over simpler technologies, such as tablets, which have become staples of classrooms for children with disabilities despite inconclusive research about their benefits. Aside from being more fun than screens—“Kids just like robots better,” Scassellati says—robots seem to accelerate learning. Perhaps most importantly, children are often more willing to listen and engage with a physical robot than with a flat-screen device. “When the robot says, ‘Hey, let’s do one more homework assignment,’ the kids say yes,” Scassellati explains. “And when a program on a screen asks the same thing, they turn it off.”...“There’s good evidence that kids are learning something in the short-term” with the robots,” Scassellati says. “But the thing that’s hard for parents to hear is, we don’t have any long-term studies that show that this is effective.” The longest studies on the subject ran for one month, which Scassellati stresses is not long enough to create lasting behavior change: “We see the kids make progress, but the progress they make disappears two to three months after the robot’s gone.” Researchers hope to conduct longer studies, but it’s a matter of time and funding.