Connecticut is Teaching Robots to Teach Autistic Children

Robots have proven effective in interacting with special needs children who actually interact with robots like they are social entities, whereas adults can be very off-putting for children with autism.

by David Holahan, The Hartford Courant, Conn. / October 15, 2019

(TNS) — The autistic child at Norfeldt Elementary School in West Hartford is fully engaged with his instructor, Chris, who leads him through some Tai chi-like arm movements and asks him to identify colors. The session goes well and they high-five when it’s over.

In the 2017 Fast Company video, the boy’s mother fights back tears as she testifies to the social and academic progress her son has made under Chris’ tutelage.

Chris is a robot.

The diminutive therapist owes his teaching talents to Tim Gifford, who is president and chief technical officer of Movia Robotics in Bristol.

Gifford began exploring the educational possibilities of robots at the University of Connecticut in 2008, where he has been a researcher for years. From his wife, who is a teacher, he learned about the surge in the numbers of children diagnosed with autism as well the paucity of therapists.

Robots have proven effective in interacting with special needs children as far back as the 1970s, Gifford’s initial research found. “Children with autism actually interact with robots like they are social entities,” he said. “Adults can be very off-putting for children with autism. The robots are very consistent and very simple, so the children are able to interact with them more easily.”

In addition to not being judgmental or moody, robots are flat-out cool. Kids clearly are fascinated by and drawn to them.

With two grants totaling $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health, Gifford and his UConn colleagues went to work to find out how much they could program a robot to do. More than a decade later, Movia Robotics (MR) was incorporated and quickly transitioned from R&D into full-scale marketing mode. It has licensed the use of its patented software to three Connecticut school systems — Bristol, Suffield and Wallingford — as well as to three manufacturers that make and sell robots to schools nationwide and in Canada.

But in late September, the firm went from baby steps to a giant leap forward, when the U.S. Department of Defense accepted its bid to fulfill a $3.4 million contract to provide services to military families with autistic children. Even before receiving the good news, the company’s goal was to be profitable by the end of the year, said Gifford, who added that MR is also in negotiations with a large retail chain to offer the software on the robots it sells.

After observing a 45-minute demonstration of I-Pal, a robot programmed with MR software, interacting with about a dozen special needs and autism spectrum students, Tamara Kelly, a Wallingford School System psychologist, raved about the android educator.

“It was really fantastic, I was really impressed with the way our students engaged with I-Pal,” she said. “The children, who have difficulty interacting with adults or their peers, were completely engaged with the robot. I definitely see this as being an extension of what we do to help students gain academic and social skills.” She added that the students didn’t want the session to end.

MR’s charges $3,050 a year for its software program and robots run from $2,500 for I-Pal up to $10,000 for higher-end models. One of the firms licensed to sell its software program, RobotLAB Inc., headquartered in California, markets its robots to some 8,000 schools nationwide.

Gifford said his firm is lean, having survived mostly on grants and using contractors and summer interns rather than employees. He added that MR has four primary equity investors to date and minimal debt. When asked if he took a salary, he laughed.

That may change in a few months when MR plans to offer other investors a chance to buy in, enabling the company to ratchet up its sales and marketing efforts.

While the focus until now has been on autism and special needs students, Gifford sees MR’s software as adaptable not only to other educational purposes but also to unrelated applications. “The system is ultimately about people and robots working together,” he said. “So it could be used for first responders, for robots going into a building after a disaster, or it could be used for elder care; you could put a robot into the home and it could do cognitive games and monitoring.”

As the price of robots continues to decline, Gifford also sees potential for offering parents the opportunity to buy a robot with MR software for home use with their children.

On a recent visit, it was demonstrated that I-Pal interacts well with a journalist, who was able to distinguish a happy face from a sad face and got most of the other questions correct. “That was fantastic, David,” I-Pal said, “We did a lot today.”

©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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