The Robot Enhancing How Children with Autism Learn

In classrooms across America, a new educational assistant is helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) reach new breakthroughs. The teacher is patient, consistent, and a lot of fun. He’s also a robot.

ASD is a developmental disability that affects 1 in 68 schoolchildren in America alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people living with ASD experience a range of conditions that impact how they communicate and interact socially, making it harder to learn in a traditional educational setting.

One of the biggest challenges for ASD learners is misunderstanding daily social cues. That’s where Milo, an AI robot made by Dallas-based startup Robokind, comes in. Through Milo, children with ASD are learning in ways that open up new possibilities in their adult lives.

An Expressive Robot

In 2017, a major study by the University Bristol found that young people with autism have trouble recognizing and distinguishing different facial expressions. One of Milo’s successes has been to teach these cues to kids in a way that meets their needs.

Fitted in a gray spacesuit, Milo is a two-feet tall, visually-expressive robot who teaches children ages 5-17 how to identify signs of emotion. It works like this: Milo demonstrates an emotion through his own visual expression and asks the child to select the corresponding expression from a set of choices presented on a tablet.

“He’s humanoid enough, but also cartoonish enough that he’s non-threatening,” Robokind’s COO, Dr. Gregory Firn, said. “There’s no negative reinforcement or judgment being made from Milo. That makes him safe and non-threatening to an ASD learner, and really helps with engagement.”

Educational facilities have met Milo with great enthusiasm—he’s used in schools and centers in 27 states in the U.S., and has also been taken up in Canada, the UK, and Australia—in large part, because children have really taken to him.

The reason children are responding so well to Milo, Robokind finds, has to do with how Milo delivers lessons: in repetition. Whereas a human can’t repeat an instruction in exactly the same way with the same tone of voice, Milo can. “He never gets upset,” Firn said. “Instead, he unlocks the reluctance of ASD learners to engage with humans.”

“There’s no negative reinforcement or judgment being made from Milo. That makes him safe and non-threatening to an ASD learner, and really helps with engagement.”

— Dr. Gregory Firn, COO, Robokind

Rethinking Therapy

While Milo helps children feel safe in the learning environment, the real innovation is in its AI-powered curriculum that continually acquires and analyzes data. It’s through data that Milo is able to deliver a new kind of therapy for ASD learners.

Milo records all the progress he makes with a learner and provides comprehensive records of the child’s progress to educators and parents. The key to this data is it happening in real-time.

Inside Milo’s eyes are cameras that read the learner’s response. As the child is interacting with Milo, the robot is able to respond quickly and appropriately regardless of the child’s answer. If the child’s response isn’t correct, Milo can simply adjust his instructions while still keeping the lesson on track, non-judgmental, and objective.

“We’re collecting these data points by the second, which allows those adjustments to take place to meet the learner’s needs while they’re still learning,” Firn said.

In the last few years, AI technology has made vast progress in the field of autism research around the globe. Similar to Milo, the University of Hertfordshire in the UK has developed Kaspar, a child-sized robot designed to be a social companion for children with communication difficulties. At Vanderbilt University, a team of researchers is working on an AI system that is able to think like an ASD learner—using what’s known as “visual thinking”. The long-term goal of the research is to develop better educational tools for ASD learners.

These robots and AI systems are all strictly intended as complementary therapy, serving as a strong example of what human-machine partnership may look like in the near future. Such has been the experience with Milo at Robokind.

“The robot cannot and will not ever be alone with an individual providing instruction,” Firn said of Milo. “There is always a facilitator present.”

A Lasting Impact

In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that the national cost of caring for children with autism is $61 million per year in the U.S. The same research, funded by Autism Speaks, found that the average lifetime cost of supporting an individual with ASD ranges between $1.4 million and $2.4 million.

“The fight to make high-quality services available for individuals with autism has often been a debate about how expensive these services are,” the study’s senior researcher Dr. David Mandel said. “My hope is that the results of this study will show that the cost of caring for individuals with autism may be less than the cost of not properly caring for them.”

The study found that the biggest factors contributing to the national cost of supporting ASD children came from special education and lost parental income. According to Firn, Milo’s pricing is positioned to significantly reduce that impact and enable schools to use their dollars more efficiently.

While Milo, the physical robot, costs a school $6,500 (with a three-year guarantee), plus a $3,500 subscription fee for the curriculum, it is not limited to a one-to-one value add. “Milo can work with 12 to 20 students a week,” Firn explained. “It’s a prudent investment for a [school] district to use Milo because he can have life-changing impact as well as helping fiscally with their budgets.”

Yet despite its ability to cut school district costs and reduce families’ financial losses, the biggest impact of a technology like Milo is to transform the quality of life for kid with ASD. “Every week I hear stories from parents about their children’s breakthroughs,” Firn said. “We are committed to coming alongside ASD learners to change their trajectory.”