April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Robot “Teaches” Social Emotional Learning to Kids With Autism

Robots_SELSocial emotional skills—including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—are the very attributes that kids on the autism spectrum can find challenging. A robot named Milo is designed to connect with these children and help them develop them.

Milo’s face can portray a range of expressions, and he runs conversational and situational programs that teach appropriate behavior. He was created by the robotics company RoboKind as part of its Robots4Autism program, which uses humanoid machines to teach SEL to kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“[These] kids naturally gravitate to technology, and Milo makes [the lessons] more approachable,” says Michelle N. McFarlin, director of the organization Texas Social Communication Connection in Dallas, who developed the curriculum over two years with her writing partner, Pam Rollins.

Since children with ASD understand visual information more easily than auditory information, visual icons appear on his chest during lessons. When teaching students about greeting friends, Milo explains the need to look at their face, smile, and say hi. Icons such as a smiley face and the word “hi” can appear on his LCD screen.

Educators can chose from 13 modules to teach skills such as identifying emotions, greeting people, hosting or attending playdates, and calming down. Shannon Darst, a consultant and coordinator of the LINKS  curriculum for kids with ASD at schools in Elgin, TX, uses Milo in life skills classrooms. “[Middle schoolers] are staying engaged in the Milo learning lessons for longer” than some other lessons, she says, adding that one student has learned to ask for a break when he needs to release anxious energy. “He is also verbally identifying when other students need to take a break or take a deep breath,” she notes.

Another child who worked with Milo asked his mom to photograph one of his projects so he could send it to Milo, McFarlin adds.

A tablet connected to Milo teaches skills through video modeling. Actors portray a situation so that kids can better understand what certain behaviors look like. The curriculum’s social narratives describe verbal and non-verbal skills in a non-threatening, detailed way. “They’re meant to be very explicit, because kids with ASD can’t put themselves in other people’s place,” McFarlin explains.

“It’s so impactful [when] families and kids themselves enjoy things we take for granted,” she adds. Referring to the success of the calm-down module, she says, “stories like that make me cry and so proud to be a part of this.”

Okyle-Carly_Contrib_WebCarly Okyle is a freelance journalist who has written for FamilyCircle.com, YourTango.com, and Guideposts magazine. Her blog “The D Card” is candid look at living with disability issues.

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  1. What a unique new way to use technology to help kids! Will be interesting to see where we go from here. Thanks for the post!