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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Robo-teachers can aid autistic children in the UAE

UAE university researchers find robots help retain attention span of children with autism

The College of Information Technology at UAE University in Al Ain is turning to robotics to help children with autism. Pawan Singh / The National
The College of Information Technology at UAE University in Al Ain is turning to robotics to help children with autism. Pawan Singh / The National

Robo-teachers are proving a hi-tech tool to boost the attention levels of autistic children, researchers at a UAE university have found.

Academics at the UAEU College of Information Technology in Al Ain have discovered that harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) can aid development as children "pay more attention to a robot" than a human.

Researchers found that children on the autism spectrum responded better to simple instructions offered by robots, but their learning was often "inhibited' when presented with more complex ideas by a human face.

The university team used a specific kind of testing with robots, introducing children to different screen characters, such as a face with small ears, no hair, large eyes and a small nose and mouth to gauge their response.

“If you present complex behaviours to an autistic child, they won’t accept it and try to avoid eye contact,” said Dr Fady Al Najjar, assistant professor at the college.

“This inhibits their learning so we have tried to solve that by introducing a robot with limited behaviours and physical complexities.

“Kids pay more attention to the robot, than the human interaction.

“Our idea is to present a robot to the child, with a doctor adding commands behind the scenes. That enables us to control how much information the robot is passing on to the child from the doctor or teacher.”

Attention span is critical to learning, and although some autistic children find it difficult to focus for long periods, when the simplified robot instruction were used, attention levels increased.

The university is now trying to build an artificial Intelligence interaction between robot and child, so the machine can learn what commands are increasing the attentiveness and response from the child.

As this develops within a few months, it should reduce the need for input from doctors, so they can monitor results, rather than input commands to stimulate and increase a child’s attention.

In schools in America, teachers are discovering robots can help teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts to children with autism because of their physical nature and consistent behaviour.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina are using Bee-Bot floor robots to interact with children, working with them to solve problems in order to move forward on a grid.

The Sphero robot, a white orb, teaches the scientific principles of movement by rolling through a maze, as children add weights to a chariot to enhance friction.

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“In combinations with human therapists and teachers, robots can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in moving from being withdrawn and isolated to laughing, dancing, and singing,” said Silvia Vianello, director of innovation at the S P Jain School of Global Management, Dubai.

“Robots help them in holding eye contact and sustaining more complex social interactions, maintaining self-control and self-regulation when distressed, or over-stimulated.”

She said robots should complement rather than replace human interaction.

“Human teachers should not be replaced by robots, instead robots should enhance humans using the support of technology.

“A robot engages each child and delivers research-based curriculum that helps develop understanding, practice and application of each concept.

“With the most advanced robots, it is possible to select individual lesson options in the preferred order.”

Multi-sensory data collected from robot interactions with ASD children can be used to create a greater understanding of the condition and how it impacts child development.

By 2030, the World Economic Forum expects education to be one of the eight areas of human activity where AI will have the greatest growth and influence.

Despite that prediction, special needs experts claim human interaction will remain crucial to a child’s healthy development.

“Using robots in education with autistic children could be beneficial, as it may help provide a stable, positive environment and create constancy to enhance routines and support learning,” said Marie Byrne, a special needs teaching co-ordinator in Dubai.

“All children like to feel valued and respond well to emotionally stable environments and positive relationships with their peers and adults.

“Children with autism need this more acutely as they are often easily overwhelmed by sudden change or unexpected responses from others.”