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Robots Give Students with Autism New Learning Opportunities

Students at River Street School in Windsor play Simon Says with the school's new robots. From left are Nick Cote, Natalie Tongue, and Jacob Brown.

Students at River Street School in Windsor play Simon Says with the school’s new robots. From left are paraeducator Kate Westbrook, Nick Cote, Natalie Tongue, and Jacob Brown.

Students at River Street School in Windsor  — a school serving individuals on the autism spectrum and young people with other developmental disabilities — now have access to a unique learning tool straight out of science fiction: robots.

The robots help students with autism to improve their social, sensory, and cognitive skills —and the students are fascinated by them.

“When you’re trying to instruct someone who has autism, you really want to try to use every trick in the book to unlock them and make their lives — and the quality of their lives — better than it is,” said school leader Thomas Parvenski.

Ben and Jerry, named by the students, are NAO robots made by Aldebaran Robotics that the school was able to purchase thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Mike Maloney and Pete Landry Memorial Golf Tournament. They came equipped with 55 applications, and educators can also program their own games, stories, music, and movement to suit the needs of their students.

“It’s better when we develop activities ourselves because we can customize them to our students’ needs,” said speech-language pathologist Ann Sullivan.

NAO robots Ben and Jerry are equipped with

NAO robots Ben and Jerry are equipped with two cameras, touch sensors, four directional microphones, and 25 degrees of freedom of movement.

CREC River Street School serves 150 plus students ages five to 21, and more than 80 percent are on the autism spectrum.

“The thrust of our school’s focus is behavior and communication,” said Sullivan. “A lot of the inappropriate behavior that students’ demonstrate is due to a lack of communication skills.”

Sullivan added, “For lots of kids on the autism spectrum, visual is their strength.” Auditory processing can be a struggle however, and it’s an area where Ben and Jerry can help.

One game educators have programmed for the robots that builds students’ auditory processing skills is Simon Says. The students have to focus and listen carefully in order to respond to the robots’ directions. Using their sophisticated technology, the robots can tell whether or not the students have correctly followed a command.

The robots’ ability to interact with students is made possible by two cameras, touch sensors, four directional microphones, and 25 degrees of freedom of movement.

Educators control the robots using iPads. They can construct activities by typing in “turn left” for example, or by typing in words for the robots to say.

All students at the school have been exposed to the robots, and the robots have done an excellent job capturing their attention, according to Parvenski. The school is now working to prepare activities so that educators can use the robots with smaller groups.

Case Coordinator Lisa Ferreira said that the robots make such a great instructional tool because students find them fascinating. “So many of our students are so into technology,” she said. “With technology like this the kids really blossom. Their attention span increases, and they’re absolutely fascinated.”

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