Encouraging Social Play in Children with Autism Using Robots

Robot-Assisted Instruction for children with autism is usually associated with replacing or supplementing the learning that takes place in a classroom. It can be a valuable tool not only for academic learning but for helping children get more comfortable engaging with others in a casual play setting. Robot-Assisted Instruction (RAI) meets kids at their level while helping them understand the lessons they need to succeed in life. 

Emerging Science of Robots and Autism

A collection of small studies have demonstrated that robots, when well-designed with autistic children’s needs in mind, can help with a wide variety of therapeutic needs. These include learning, attention, initiating play, verbalization, social skills, and cognitive skills. Robots give an accessible, easy way for autistic children to interact with a teacher-like figure without the barriers and complications of actual face-to-face learning.

How Robots Help Encourage Social Play

Encourage Bonding

It may come as a surprise, but, over time, many kids form bonds with their robots. MOVIA’s systems  are programmed with kid-friendly breaks and dance moves that encourage friendliness and associate robot sessions with fun, enjoyment, and other warm feelings. 

These interactions help the children bond with their robot teachers, especially as the robots offer a personal touch: personalized positive feedback using the child’s name and/or phrases that are familiar to the child.

Break Past the Barriers of Remote Learning

In the era of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, many children are struggling with the skills they are learning in school – and that includes the social skills that in-person schooling often fosters. After over a year of isolation, the transition back to “normal” is likely to be full of struggles as children re-adjust to interacting regularly with peers.

For children with autism, this struggle is likely to be even more dramatic. Regular engagement with a familiar face (even when that familiar face is a robot) provides a level of consistency and familiarity that children find comforting. It also supports their social skills even when human interaction is limited.

During COVID, many areas of education have turned to virtual learning. This change in a social setting can pose a new struggle for children with autism. Handling a Zoom class is challenging for any child! This is one situation where robot-assisted activities can be especially helpful. Artificial intelligence helps make sure the child is still engaged and benefiting from the activity.

Remove the Pressure of Face-to-Face Interactions

Social play with another person comes with all kinds of added nuances, from eye contact to nonverbal cues and all the complications and unpredictability of human behavior. Children with autism tend to feel more relaxed when playing with a robot because these added variables are removed. A robot companion can engage with a child in a predictable manner. Even their appearance is specifically designed to be non-threatening and uncomplicated.

A Way to Bridge the Gap Between Solo and Social Play

One of the most critical parts of schooling for young children is social development. Through social play and social emotional learning, they learn how to talk with, play with, interact with, and befriend others. This way of learning can be a challenge for many children with autism. Classrooms full of students with varying abilities and social development levels can feel overwhelming, and engaging with peers can be unpredictable and stressful. 

Studies have found that children with autism learn to engage with the robot as their friend over time. The skills they learn and develop with their robot companion can help them show empathy to their peers. The robots become a part of the family and broader social circles; robots have been shown to help kids feel more comfortable engaging socially with others, rather than simply serving as a crutch or replacing relationships with actual people. Robots can even be utilized in small group settings where children with autism and other peers can learn and play together.

Robots Are Non-Judgmental

Neurotypical children don’t always know how to interact with their autistic peers. Children with autism can already find social situations stressful. They can experience judgment and social ostracization from neurotypical kids, who simply don’t understand their autistic peers.  Neurotypical children might react negatively to social “mistakes” made by children with autism. 

Robots are non-judgmental. When playing with a robot, there are no consequences for violating social norms. Robot-Assisted Instruction creates an additional safe space for children with autism to practice social cues and norms. It’s all about reinforcement, not punishment. The goal is to create an environment where the child can learn over time and become more comfortable.

Robots Are Consistent 

Unlike people, robots are systematic and programmed to function in the same, consistent way, time after time. Even the best teachers, parents, or friends cannot manage that level of consistency. By nature, humans behave inconsistently. A robot’s consistency provides a safe setting for a child with autism to interact and play. The child can predict precisely how the robot will respond to specific actions or behaviors. This is comforting and can help children with autism take academic/social risks in their learning process. 

MOVIA’s Unique Approach

With MOVIA’s Robot-Assisted Instruction (RAI), children with autism receive the support they need to learn necessary life lessons and skills. By removing the barriers that can arise from a traditional classroom setting, RAI creates an environment where each child can feel comfortable to learn and build connections with their robot teachers and eventually with their peers. 

Conclusion

By employing a comforting, consistent robot to help bridge the gap between solo and social play, MOVIA’s systems can help children with autism feel more comfortable engaging socially with their peers, teachers, and family members.

To learn more about MOVIA’s unique approach to supporting children with autism, visit our website or contact us at info@moviarobotics.com.

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