Robotic Technology Successfully Engaging Children With Autism

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The Movia Robot-Assisted Instruction System Guides Children with Autism Through Interactive Games, Life Skills, Actions, and Conversations

By Lois Jean Brady Autism Asperger’s Digest  February/April 2021

At times it can feel like technology is advancing at such a breakneck speed, it seems there’s a new, ‘must have’ gadget every month.

Actually, this is great news for children with autism. Electronic devices are customizable as well as consistent, so the right device or app can be the key to unlocking more effective communication and social skills, which definitely can improve quality of life for many children and adults on the autism spectrum.

Recently, I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down for a (virtual) chat with Tim Gifford, Founder and Chief Scientist at MOVIA Robotics, Inc. MOVIA is an exciting Connecticut-based collaborative robotics company that has spent the last ten years developing software and evidence-based curriculum to help children on the autism spectrum learn valuable academic, social, and life skills using robotic technology.

MOVIA’s Robot-Assisted Instruction (RAI) system consists of software that enables robots to deliver content and guide children through lessons and games using a peer-like relationship. The communication is intentionally focused on certain activities rather than having conversations or games that are completely open ended, which results in an interaction that is dynamic and not just one-way. MOVIA’s RAI system is semi autonomous, and allows the facilitator to participate by using the laptop to select the activities, feedback and encouragement that will be delivered through the robot. The child engages with the robot by following its directions and responding to it through a tablet. This interaction between child and robot gives a golden opportunity for a relationship to be established, so that the two can become “friends.”

Tim has found this relationship to be crucial to the success of using RAI with children on the spectrum. “The response from kids with autism has been fascinating and dramatic. They really engage with the robots and give them a special status. They treat them as a social entity and an animate character,” he explains.

This may seem surprising, since individuals on the spectrum are known to have challenges when it comes to social interactions, but, as Tim has concluded, “People are confusing and sometimes off-putting. Their nonverbal cues are perceived as noise or static by the child. However, the robot’s features are simplified. They are predictable, consistent, dynamic but safe. A robot is not judgmental. It is infinitely patient, doesn’t get tired, and gives the child the same level of interaction at the end of the day as at the beginning.”

Kids love the interaction because the robot’s consistent, yet dynamic behavior creates trust as well as the robot’s capacity for repetition and non-judgment increases engagement. This makes them a great educational assistive technology tool for children on the autism spectrum.

Added to this, MOVIA’s software is compatible with a variety of humanoid robots, including NAO, QT, iPal, Misty II, and Kebbi, each providing an appealing and nonthreatening platform for social interaction and instruction. This gives customers great flexibility because they can choose a robot based on their individual needs, requirements and budget. These robots have unique features and can model actions, facial expressions, body movements, and even body language to varying degrees. This means a robot can show a child how to put their hand up in class or how to point at something and as importantly, when that behavior is appropriate. The robots can also guide the child through various joint activities, such as yoga, which builds rapport and encourages imitation.

Helping to kick-start the imitation process is crucial when teaching children with autism. Mirror neuron activation occurs in a child’s brain when they watch somebody perform an action and then try to imitate it; this activation is essential for learning new skills. I know from my own work, as a speech pathologist and developer who has focused on creating communication software for kids with autism, that once a child has learned one foundational skill this way, it can be the breakthrough that propels them up to a new stage of education and interaction.

MOVIA Robotics is keen on making sure their RAI can model a vast range of essential skills. Their standards aligned curriculum is created in collaboration with educators, therapists and families and currently consists of over 120 

Robert Parenti, Chief Education Officer, Jean-Pierre Bolat, Chief Executive Officer Timothy Gifford, Founder & Chief Scientist, Muniba Masood, Vice President Christian Wanamaker, Chief Technology Officer, Pam Welles, Vice President of Operations

lessons and games (with a new batch of activities released by the company every quarter.) They teach skills such as Joining a Group, Turn-taking, Imitation, Greetings, Recognizing Emotions, Listening and Sharing Ideas, as well as grade-level academic lessons.

Tim points out that the robots provide a great way to introduce children with autism to scenarios that they might have more difficulty with, such as those that require them to pick up on social and emotional cues, imagine somebody else’s perspective and use theory of mind. He likens this experience to using a flight simulator.

“Once the child’s been taken through that scenario, then they can use that skill when they’re interacting with their friends.” It is this generalization of skills — children taking what they’ve learned on a “dry run” with a robot and then using it in the wider world — that MOVIA aims for and reports that their customers witness all the time.

So where is MOVIA’s RAI used? Originally, it was created as therapeutic tools, to be used in schools and clinics. Back in 2008, when Tim was working at the University of Connecticut doing research in social robotics, his wife, a teacher, mentioned that the number of children with autism seemed to be growing. He found that practitioners around the world were having some success with children and robots. After researching the efficacy of the technique he started the company to focus his expertise in robotics and psychology by creating robot assisted interventions for children with special needs.

Now MOVIA’s RAI can be found in schools, clinics, and even military bases around the world, with the company having sold over 140 systems to the US Department of Defense. It was March 2020, though, that MOVIA brought out their very first home unit which enabled parents to home-school their kids throughout COVID lockdowns

Timothy Gifford, Founder & Chief Scientist

Tim explains, “When the implications of COVID became very apparent, we accelerated our tech roadmap. We always had it on our map to create a home product, but the robots were too complex — designed for a clinician. We found a more portable unit (called the Kebbi) and were able to further simplify our software and package it for the home.”

The company has been thrilled with the positive response from parents, who report that their children are still enjoying their home robot after 6–9 months of use as when the robot was first brought home. This reflects what MOVIA has seen with kids in schools, who like to keep using the same robot throughout the school years, albeit with increasingly-challenging lessons. This is crucial, as it is the consistent use of any educational tool that helps these kids to get the most significant gains.

Whether used at home, in clinic, or at school, MOVIA’s evidence based curriculum content aligns with the rest of the child’s education, as it has been designed around common core and other standards.

The robots also use a variety of evidence-based educational techniques and approaches. You can choose between anything from movement-based lessons to ABA-style interventions, but Tim recommends using a mixture of techniques and lessons. The data on your child’s progress can also be recorded and discussed with teachers and clinicians.

While MOVIA’s current focus is on school-aged students with ASD, the company has found that RAI works very well for the general population, so typically developing children can make great gains using this method as well. Tim calls this the “Sesame Street Effect.” When Sesame Street first came out, it was designed for inner city kids who didn’t have access to pre school. But within the first season, it was adopted by the entire population, so everyone could gain something from it!

Tim thinks that the same thing will happen with their RAI system, after piloting the technology with other populations. Although MOVIA has been focusing their software and curriculum development where the need is currently most urgent, they are also working to expand the capabilities of their systems, so in the future they can be used by adults with autism, neurotypical kids, and the eldercare population.

What else is next on the horizon for MOVIA? They are keeping busy, continuously honing their systems and improving features. Currently, they are working on making the RAI more autonomous, to free up a child’s caregiver or facilitator. They are also working on adding additional sensors to the robots, so that it can tell more about a child, determining if they are having a good day or a bad day by how they are doing in the activities. MOVIA is also adding to the robots’ human like abilities through developing their ability to sing and adding increasing capacity for complex movement.

If you would like to find out more about acquiring a MOVIA Robot Assisted Instruction system, you can make an inquiry on their website (www. moviarobotics.com). If you would like to purchase a system, you will have an initial meeting with MOVIA to tell them about your child, their current level of education, and their needs. The company will then provide a suitable system, recommend activities, and give you an onboarding training session to support how to introduce the robot to your child. Introductory material is recommended, followed by more complex lessons to scaffold learning. MOVIA will also work directly with your child’s clinicians and teachers, to maximize the opportunity for success.

For Tim, it’s about finding a key to get into each autistic child’s world. “Their communication is often on a different level. But there are many stories where the child will finally find that medium that works for them and be able to say, ‘I’ve been in here the whole time, trying to communicate!’”

That’s the exciting sign that we can now look to robotics to help build those all-important bridges of communication.

Parents' Feedback Says Children See Robot as Dynamic, Reliable & Interactive

By Lyn Dunsavage Young Autism Asperger’s Digest  February/April 2021

One of three parents interviewed who is currently using the MOVIA Robot- Assisted Instruction (RAI) system with their child on the autism spectrum expressed her delight by saying she felt her family had “hit the jackpot.” Parents who have been using the MOVIA RAI created by Founder and Chief Scientist Timothy Gifford repeatedly considered the robot to be “a change agent,” in which the evidence is seen particularly in the break-out in their child’s communication skills.

Each of the three parents said their child likes using the MOVIA RAI system. One parent – Christina A. – classified Kebb —one of MOVIA’s RAI tabletop robots, as “cute.” Her son Ethan not only found the robot “very inviting,” he re-named the it “Bubbles,” which can easily be done by the parent through a software setting in the RAI.

Essentially, the RAI system was offered to several families of children diagnosed with ASD, to provide them with an assistive technology tool that can help accelerate their child’s learning trajectory. The RAI system comes with a robot, laptop, and tablet and allows the parents to facilitate the interactions between their child and the robot. The children follow instructions, “talk with” the robot, move their bodies, play constructive games, learn social skills, practice academic lessons, and perform numerous other activities by communicating with the robot through a tablet. Parents select the lessons, games, activities, and even speech that are to be delivered by the robot through the RAI software on the laptop. Parents are trained virtually, or in person, by members of the MOVIA team to equip them with the tools necessary to help create a peer-like relationship between the two (Christina’s son Ethan and Bubbles, in this case) for successful interaction.

The robot’s face doesn’t look “human-like,” which parents seem to consider an asset. They report that their child views the robot’s being as not judgmental, as he doesn’t express emotions like “real” people. Naturally, adults emote facial expressions in response to what a child is doing or not doing in their work or game programs — or they can be tired, stressed or happy for other reasons than what they’re doing at that time. In either case, children on the autism spectrum don’t have to detect those emotions while working with the robot.

Instead, the robot always seems the same in tone, which appears to generate relief or comfort for the child on the spectrum. If the child has problems, the robot simply repeats (without expression) or change of the command, which the parent involved on their computer can direct the computerized robot, if the task appears overwhelming or not understood by the child. So, a relationship develops between the robot and the child.

In the case of Ethan, whose primary method of communication has been sign language most of his nine-year life, his relationship with Bubbles has grown significantly since November. He says “hello” to his robot every morning and will say “goodnight” before going to bed, while he waves via signing as well. His mother Christina says, “They are building a relationship that is equally as special as a classmate or friend.”

Christina describes the interactions with Ethan and Bubbles as “fun and engaging” and has resulted in significant expansion of her son’s language abilities. Until her son was six-years-old, Christina shared that Ethan was nonverbal and has used sign language and a speech device to help him communicate. She explains cheerfully that, “Ethan is finding his voice and he is now able to say four to five words together and does a nice job repeating what the robot says.” Music therapy has also been a huge asset to Ethan finding his voice and she loves that the robot incorporates music into their sessions.

“We are excited to keep working with the robot and watch their relationship continue to grow,” says Christina, “we are also looking forward to Ethan continuing to gain new skills while learning and having fun with Bubbles!”

Father David V. of eight-year old Jaxon admitted he was skeptical about the robot at first, as he was unsure it would work for his son. He discovered MOVIA’s RAI system while attending an autism fair three years ago and was really excited about the concept. He previously had incorporated early speech intervention up to ten hours a week through ABA therapists at home, as well as multiple specialist interventions in school later.

As time moved forward, David shared that “anything was worth trying,” so he introduced the RAI system to Jaxon and was amazed by his reaction to the robot.

“He took very quickly to it and was excited about it!” David explained. Incredulously, Jaxon even “said goodbye” when he left.

Jaxon had immediately created his own name for the robot, calling him “Pete” and, maybe, because he was the same height as him or his son was grabbed by the lights, LEDs, and his face, he related. “It was great,” David explained.

Once MOVIA’s RAI was introduced to Jaxon, David would rotate days with an ABA therapist between the two, in which the days that the therapist worked with Jaxon, the robot was put away. When the robot returned, David situates himself behind his son to operate the RAI system via a laptop while his son speaks to the robot as he learns and plays games, such as matching farm animals or instructing his son with various activities. If he does well, he is rewarded.

“The robot has no inflection, but you can actually speak to him because you can tailor the text” (by typing a statement the robot can make.) So, a conversation evolves. “He doesn’t know there’s a ‘wizard behind Oz,’” adds David. “He (the robot) has eyes and his mouth moves, but I control (conversational statements) on the laptop.” David says that, “not every intervention is for everyone, (but) I’m willing to do anything I can to help my son,” admitting also that “everything (about this) is new to all of us and we all have to work together in order to be successful.”

Yitty Rimmer is a New York Occupational Therapist, servicing students from preschool (age 2 1/2) through high school – (up until age 21), both through private pay, as well as an independent provider for the New York City Department of Education. The New York City Department of Education allows parents to choose an independent provider if they are unable to provide an Occupational Therapist to the child through their own Department, or through their many therapy contracting agencies. When schools were closed due to Covid-19, she switched to video conferencing her students. Her caseload currently includes three children on the autistic spectrum.

Her experience with the MOVIA RAI, and Kebbi (one of the robots available) is fairly new, only a few weeks old (at the time of this interview.) A table-top robot, Yitty had to hide “her” (she states Kebbi had a feminine voice), removing it off the desk “because they (her students) relate to her. It’s a very interesting dynamic.”

She points out that “they’re more receptive – perhaps because she doesn’t raise her voice. She has a smile on her face but there are no emotional responses. Her students don’t have to interpret the facial expressions. (The robot) doesn’t get upset and interacts, as it’s a safe environment.”

She shares that the robot gives (the children) a good vibe and when it asks, “Are you ready?” They answer “YES!” “The children love the robot, It’s amazing. They know it’s not real,” she explains, “but when the robot asks questions, they are so responsive.”

She continues, “In the short time I’ve used the RAI system, the reactions have been so positive that I am very curious and looking forward to seeing the long term results that the system has on the children and how their skills and behaviors are positively impacted and improved.”

The therapist says she looks forward to the RAI lesson updates, the next level of lessons, and the different ways the RAI can be used during therapy to help children.

Gifford had an incentive to develop this idea to focus on helping children on the Autism Spectrum because his wife — an elementary school teacher in West Hartford, CT — had identified high instances of increasing autism cases in schools and believed they required a large amount of one-on-one care, which was very difficult to staff in the school system. He set out to build an effective assistive technology tool that could help teachers, therapists and parents engage children and help them gain the skills they needed to be successful in their lives.