What Robots Can Teach Us About Teaching Autistic Kids

A few years ago, the Nao robot was introduced as a socially assistive humanoid robot who would help people of all ages, “to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises, and to learn social behaviors.” Since then, several studies have been conducted on the different ways these robots can help children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to learn and develop social skills. The latest of such studies is wrapping up at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, focused on teaching autistic children to practice imitation, a social skill that could help build autonomy. Entitled, “Graded Cueing Feedback in Robot-Mediated Imitation Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” the study provided useful insight into how any teacher, human or humanoid, can best approach instructing people on the autism spectrum.

In the study, two groups of high-functioning children with ASD played an imitation game with the robot. The robot commanded the children to strike a pose or action, and when successful the robot’s eyes would flash green and say, “Good job.” When the children in the control group failed to imitate the robot correctly, he repeated the command without variation. In the non-control group, when a child failed to imitate correctly, the robot repeated the command, but added visual cues as well as more descriptive instructions.

The study showed that children who received the graded cueing feedback (varied instructions), showed improved or maintained performance, while the children in the control group simply stayed the same. The results suggest that the varied feedback was less frustrating and more effective than repeating the same instruction over and over.

“The idea is to eventually give every child a personalized robot dedicated to providing motivation and praise and nudges toward more integration,” says Maja Mataric, USC Viterbi Vice Dean for Research and leader of the study. That may still be a while off, but the next time you find yourself repeating the same instruction over and over to your child, think of that robot and try a more varied approach. Combine visual and verbal cues and follow up with more detailed instruction.

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