Autistic children could in the future be helped to learn by robot buddies in the classroom. Evidence emerging from a trial at a school in Birmingham suggests that pupils who are on the autistic spectrum learn better from the automatons than human teachers. And researchers say that if they can be proven to help difficult to reach youngsters, then in the future they could also be used to help pupils in mainstream classes.
Max and Ben, two knee-high humanoid robots that can dance to Thriller, play games and emulate Tai Chi, have been helping pupils at Topcliffe Primary School in Castle Vale since March.
Ian Lowe, headteacher at Topcliffe, where about a quarter of the pupils are autistic, said the robots had been ‘brilliant’ at supporting children with their learning.
He told the BBC: ‘The robots have no emotion, so autistic children find them less threatening than their teachers and easier to engage with.’
Topcliffe is a mainstream primary school that gets specialist funding to cater for autistic youngsters in separate classes using a range of technologies.
With the help of the University of Birmingham, the school is trialling the robots as classroom buddies for autistic pupils in an initiative that aims to improve social interaction and communication.
Research shows that children with autism often find computers and technology safe, motivating and engaging, particularly in the areas of social interaction and communication.
The robots, which cost around £15,000 and were donated by their French manufacturer Aldebaran, are the latest in a range of innovative technologies that the school has been experimenting with.
Dr Karen Guldberg, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, said: ‘We have been looking at how technology can support pupils with autism to communicate more effectively.
‘Pupils and teachers are experimenting with the robots and other technologies in a developmental way and they are showing significant benefits for the classroom.
‘The robots have been modelling good behaviour and acting as buddies.’
Speaking to the BBC, she added: ‘It is amazing to see how engaged and focused they can be when they are working with the robot. It can be very difficult to get children with autism to focus.’
Autistic children in particular find the technology predicable, but a well thought out programme could also work in mainstream classes, Dr Guldberg added.
Mr Lowe added: ‘The robots have been brilliant at supporting autistic children with their learning. You can program them to teach language, play games and model behaviour. We have even used them in assemblies.
‘In the future we are looking to see if they can be used to support learning not just at school but at home as well.’
The pupils are also taken with the tiny androids. Seven-year-old Joshua told Sky News he likes playing memory games with the robots, while Daniel and Khalim say they like to watch their electronic buddies dance.
Teachers told Sky News the fact that the normally reticent youngsters are so keen to discuss the robots shows their value in bringing autistic children out of their shell.