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New robot engages with autistic youth

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Robokind — an advanced social robotics, Texas-based company — is developing a machine which engages with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The humanoid robot named Milo uses Robots4Autism’s research-based curriculum to teach elementary and middle school children with ASD. The robot teaches them how to understand their emotions, according to their site.

“(Milo) delivers lessons with unparalleled consistency, endless patience and using learning reinforcement techniques that would be difficult, if not impossible for a human caregiver,” said Richard Margolin, director of engineering and founder of Robokind.

Milo collects data through interactions with children diagnosed with ASD to ensure progress is recorded for any ongoing assessment, Margolin said.

ASD is a term for a complex disorder of brain development, according to Autism Speaks.

“(Milo) speaks slowly to help people with auditory processing issues understand and absorb the material," he said. "He uses icons (like flashcards) on his chest screen as he speaks to help reinforce and illustrate concepts for visual learners."

Robokind also provides videos of human interaction to give examples of social and emotional skills, he said.

There are 3.5 million Americans who live with ASD, according to a Bloomberg report. The prevalence of a child with ASD is 1 in 68, according to the Center for Disease Control in 2014.

Youth with ASD presented the lowest rates of employment participation and the highest rates of a lack of participation in the workforce compared to other youth in other disability categories, according to a study on AAP News & Journals.

Typically, a diagnostic evaluation involves a multitude of professionals in different disciplines to ensure accuracy of diagnosis, according to Autism Speaks. Doctors specializing in pediatrics, psychology, speech and language pathology and occupational therapy are necessary to diagnose ASD. 

“Colleges (focusing in) education rarely have an autism specialization within their special education teacher preparation programs,” said Candace Baker, director of the Autisms Intervention Center at Texas A&M International University.

The experts involved in creating the research-based curriculum that Milo administers are Pamela Rollins of the University of Texas at Dallas Callie School for Communicative Disorders, Carolyn Garver, director of the Dallas Autism Treatment Center, and Michelle McFarlin, a clinical speech language pathologist.

These robots are beneficial for individuals with ASD because of the appeal of technology to those on the spectrum, the robot's ability to perform social behavior repetitively and quickly adapt to each individuals treatment, according to a according to a Science Direct report.

But research is still in the beginning stages, according to the report.

The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC) at Rutgers acknowledges the value of technology as a tool in working with individuals diagnosed with ASD, said Maria Arnold, director of education at the DDDC.

But the center has yet to participate in any robot-assisted intervention with individuals on the spectrum, she said, though it does highlight the need for "empirically validated evidence" to support any intervention for children with ASD.

Hernan Guarderas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior, majoring in journalism and media studies. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. See more on Twitter @hguarderas93.

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