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Robots connect with students on autism spectrum

Lively device helps students in New York City special education district make progress
NAO robot has become a virtual classmate for students on the autism spectrum in New York City’s special education District 75.
The NAO robot has become a virtual classmate for students on the autism spectrum in New York City’s special education District 75.

Robots are opening new channels of communication for students on the autism spectrum or those with other disabilities. Educators at New York City’s special education District 75 say the NAO robot—a bright-eyed, two-foot-tall humanoid developed by Aldebaran Robotics—is now considered a virtual classmate by some students.

Students can talk and read to the friendly and mobile robots, which can respond verbally and with head nods and hand gestures. The students also can sing songs with the robots and work on color- and word-matching exercises, among other activities. The district also has trained its teachers to program the robot to perform new functions, such as reading stories back to students, District 75 STEM Director Leslie Schecht says.

“We have seen, in a couple of instances, where students who were completely non-verbal are verbal, and students who would not touch are actually hugging the robot,” Schecht says. “Is this a silver bullet? No, but do we see actual changes in several students? Absolutely.”

District 75 operates special education programs for about 23,000 students in New York City schools. It has two robots each in two schools—P.S. 9932, a K12 school in Queens, and 10X, a K8 school in the Bronx.

Since the robots were introduced, there has been a drop in inappropriate behavior, such as temper tantrums, when transitioning between class activities, District 75 Superintendent Gary Hecht says. The ultimate goal is for the students to transfer the social skills they’re learning to the rest of their school day and their lives beyond.

“We’re seeing a pattern now that hopefully will translate into those academic performance activities where students will be able to focus and to attain greater opportunities through this experience with the robot,” Hecht says.

Four NAO robots are being used in Edison Public Schools in New Jersey to build relationships between high school students in advanced engineering classes and elementary school students with autism, says Christopher Conklin, the district’s assistant superintendent for pupil special services.

The engineering students this spring will learn to use and to program the robots to follow directions and use language, among other activities. They will then bring the robots to classrooms for students with autism. “The engineering students will get to see a side of life they’re not used to seeing,” Conklin says. ”It’s about connecting two groups of kids who would otherwise never connect.”