Helping a child on the autistic spectrum with communication is important. A new trend appears to be the use of robots for social instruction.
But what are the ethical concerns when it comes to using robots with our most vulnerable students?
Will robots take the place of teachers and therapists?
It is important to note that some children are afraid of robots, and the question arises as to how much time and effort should be taken to help ease their fears.
Right now robots are programmed and remote controlled by professionals. The two most popular robots are Milo and Nao.
But the Development of Robot-Enhanced therapy for children with AutisM (yes capital M) spectrum disorders known as DREAM, says: The DREAM Project aims to develop an autonomous robot that minimizes the therapist’s intervention so they can focus more on the child and improve the outcome of the therapy.
Thus, someday soon robots might not need therapists or teachers.
Emily Talmage wrote “Robots Replacing Teachers? Laugh at Your Own Risk,” about robots and KnowledgeWorks and the insincere claim that machines will free teachers up to do other “projects” with students.
KnowledgeWorks has several articles about this—promoting “machine partners.”
But a lot of us don’t buy it. This would be easier to believe if teachers were treated with respect and school districts weren’t driving them out of the classroom with the promise of unproven “disruptive” technology.
Robots Collect Data
The DREAM robot will also function as a diagnostic tool by collecting clinical data during therapy.
That’s right. Robots collect behavioral data on children. They watch how they react. How many times do they frown, smile and more?
The Hype that Robots are Best
Many seem excited for robots to replace therapists and teachers.
In 2015, CNN’s Tom Foreman reported that robots used for children with autism, more specifically Milo, are proving to help children more than humans by a long shot. Here’s the video.
In another paper referring to ELL children with autism it’s stated, Robots are helping autistic children in ways humans can’t.
The Texas Achievement Center says Patience is Milo’s best characteristic. No matter how many times he has to repeat himself, his tone of voice stays even. He accepts his students without judging them. He’s the perfect teacher for children with Autism.
DREAM also claims, Robot-assisted therapies (RAT) have shown promise as potential assessment and therapeutic tools as research has shown that children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) engage more readily with robots rather than humans, because robots are simple and predictable.
And there is this article claiming robots will replace teachers by 2027. They say, Digital teachers wouldn’t need days off and would never be late for work.
Those promoting the use of robots with students on the spectrum, repeatedly claim that teachers haven’t the patience of a robot. But teachers also tune into student’s nuances and know when to back off or move forward on a task.
According to MedPage Today, Educating a child with autism can cost from $17,000 to $22,000 a year, according to the company that makes Milo. It’s not entirely clear what they mean. Are they speaking about private schools?
The cost for a Milo robot including the curriculum is $5,000. RoboKind’s representative said that some insurance companies have helped reimburse the cost.
After the initial fee of $5,000, Milo costs $4,500 every year.
Do Parents Like Robots?
Parents seem excited about the use of robots for children with autism, even going to the extent of creating Go Fund Me pages to raise money for their schools to purchase them.
A university search of the research brought up numerous reports about the use of robots with autism, mostly glowing. The fact that so many of the reports seem positive is a bit troubling. There should be at least a few critical reviews. The marketing of robots for this area is fierce.
A 2012, Eurobarometer (European Union) study indicated that parents saw the use of robots in education as unethical. But another 2015 study showed that parents were more accepting of the use of robots with children with autism under the following conditions.
- They wanted the therapist to program the robot and still be involved in the therapy.
- They worried that the child could perceive the robot as a friend, or as human.
Milo’s Use in Texas and Charter Schools
The Milo robots originate and have had their greater sales in Texas. This is concerning since the Texas Education Agency also denied students with disabilities services and there have been other troubling connections with technology in the schools there.
It didn’t help to read in Robots4Autism, that a KIPP charter school in Texas was promoting the robot Milo.
KIPP, is a strict “no excuses” charter school chain and they have excluded students with disabilities in the past. They often have teachers without traditional teacher preparation. It’s anyone’s guess whether they have anyone with special education training working with their students.
But they advertise Milo glowingly.
- Student-to-student confrontations were eliminated
- Self-regulation was demonstrated by all participating students
- All students showed improvement in social interactions
- Academic gains immediately followed self-regulation
- Students effectively used calm down tools
- IEP goals are now being regularly achieved
If parents learn their child is going to be working with a robot during therapy or in their class, here are some questions to ask.
- What data will be collected and how will it be used?
- How much time will the child spend working with the robot?
- What other social activities will be done without the robot?
- If the child is afraid of the robot will they be able to work with a human instead?
- How will the social skills taught by the robot transfer over to human interaction?
Perhaps robots may be a helpful addition to students on the autistic spectrum, but parents, educators, and speech therapists should tread carefully.
Clyde Gaw says
Thinking about the Harry Harlow experiments in 1932…the children are interacting with surrogate humans. Big picture question: What kind of human being, despite the affect of autism on the child’s neurological system, will result from primary interactions during the child’s formative educational years?
Nancy Bailey says
Good question, Clyde. If the goal with communication involves real people, how will working with a robot transfer over to that?
I would ordinarily have mixed feelings about this, but in the climate of Future Ready schools it is troubling.
I also disliked the reference to KIPP. Certain buzz words are always meaningful.
Roy Turrentine says
2017, a spaced oddity. Better watch out. Those robots may look patient, but underneath it all they are changing their own equations. Do we really need these money saving machines? Look how much money the use of computers has saved us in education already. Every time we spend money on the computer, it comes from the stagnation of teacher salaries. Meanwhile, it seems that the idea of using machines to help autistic kids relate to humans better goes against the basic goal of integrating the impaired kid into normal society.
Why are we even trying these approaches? People are out of work everywhere. How do we suppose an economy based on machines instead of workers?
Nancy Bailey says
Great points! My concern, Roy, is that these ideas are promoted as successful with little real objective scientific research to show for it. There have been a lot of trends and myths in the area of autism over the years. Some harmful. Thank you!