Saturday, October 22, 2011

R2D2 and Teaching Children with Autism

Most of us enjoyed R2-D2, who along with his droid companion C-3P0 joined Luke Sywalker, Princess Leia and Obi-Wan in Star Wars.  There is something endearing about the innocent, well-intentioned but very naive mechanical humanoid that nearly everyone falls for.

Automotive driving and aircraft simulators, much earlier iterations of virtual reality devices, have been used for years to train better driving skills in motorists, and flying skills in pilots.  The idea of using machines with human properties that are able to simulate people is also highly appealing in military training and teaching.  It is used by the US Military to train soldiers on tactics for attacking urban enemy strongholds, as was apparently done in Iraq and apparently in the Seal Team Six assault on Bin Laden’s headquarters in Pakistan.

In the past few years there has been growing interest in using virtual reality systems and robots to teach skills to children with autism social skills, like recognizing facial expressions and more appropriate social skills.  There are several computerized systems to train discriminations of facial expressions among children with ASDs, some of which are free (e.g. You Face It at University of British Columbia) while others are rather expensive (e.g. the system developed by Cambridge University UK).  None have presented compelling evidence that the skills trained transfer well and are sustained in natural environments, though no doubt that could be programmed as well, nor that they are more efficient than teaching facial discriminations in vivo with real people.

 In this week’s autism news there is a report from India that Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta is developing a virtual reality world for children to use in learning to negotiate their social worlds. Dr. Porayska-Pomsta has published one report of improving attention in infants that did not involve virtual reality devices and there are no data available as far as I was able to find using his system with children with autism.  Another report from the Robotics Research Lab at University of Southern California have created studies for children with autism to interact and play with Bandit, a small human-like robot (somewhat R2D2 like) with movable eyebrows and mouth, and motion sensors that allow him to back away or move forward.  The designers hope to create a balance between human and robot so that he is approachable and engaging without being too realistic or intimidating. Maja Mataric (shown above),  co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at USC remarked, "Some work had already been done with toy-like robots before we got involved in the research. We were specifically interested in using human-like child-sized robots which would serve as peers, not toys, in the interaction with children."  In initial pilot experiments with the robots, Mataric and colleagues found that children with autism exhibited unexpected social behaviors, including pointing, initiating play, imitating the robot and even showing empathy.  Dr. Mataric has published two papers describing her work with accelerated recovery of upper-extremity function after injury caused semi-paralysis, but almost no data, involving children with autism.

As I recall among the reasons that R2-D2 was so appealing was that he was played by the actor, Kenny Baker, who had a pretty good idea what people do in various situations.  It may be noteworthy that E.T. may have been even more popular with his huge child-like innocent eyes and loving qualities, though a living being.

Children with ASDs often do not generalize well from skills taught in contrived settings to real life.  Numerous efforts to use dolls in simulation training has been used with some success with children with mild to moderate disability.  There have been numerous successful outcome studies using video modeling using live and taped models.  While it is possible a robot may be used to teach a child some rudimentary social responses, the robotics idea is mostly wishful thinking at this point.  It is possible virtual reality systems may be more promising.  Linda LeBlanc at Auburn University has used a virtual reality system to teach safety skills to students with autism, so the approach shows some promise, at least with gross motor skills. 

On the other hand, if you want to teach children with autism to interact with people, it may be easiest and most effective to directly teach social skills and communication with people rather than with computers or robots, at least that is what we have done. 

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