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Robot Helps Autistic Children Learn Social Skills

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Robot Helps Autistic Children Learn Social Skills
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

April is Autism Awareness Month in the United States.

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a complex developmental disability. It affects a person’s ability to communicate and do things with other people.

Children with autism face many challenges.

For examples, schools can be a difficult place for autistic children. Many schools are filled with loud noises, active classrooms and nearly non-stop social interactions.

Engineers in the U.K. made Kaspar to help children with autism.
Engineers in the U.K. made Kaspar to help children with autism.

So, researchers in Britain have made a child-sized robot to help autistic children learn social skills.

The robot, called Kaspar, can improve their ability to communicate with adults and other children.

Dealing with Kaspar is easier for most children with autism than interacting with someone else. The robot uses games and songs to help the children learn social interaction and communication skills.

Ben Robins is with the University of Hertfordshire. He says the robot’s movements are directed by an adult, who uses remote control equipment. So a teacher or therapist is always involved.

Robins explains that the robot gives therapists more ways to interact with autistic children. He adds that the children seem more at ease when they look at Kaspar’s face.

"Sometimes they're looking into the face and they're eye-gazing with the robot much more than what they do with a person."

Meet Kaspar of Stevenage, Britain, 2017. (REUTERS PHOTO)
Meet Kaspar of Stevenage, Britain, 2017. (REUTERS PHOTO)

He adds Kaspar is flexible. It can change to meet the needs of the 170 children who have played with him over the past 10 years.

This flexibility is important.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have problems with spoken language and eye contact. But the signs of the condition can differ greatly from one child to the next.

The word “spectrum” is an important part of the definition. You might hear of a child described as being “on the spectrum.” This means that tests showed the child has some level of autism. It could be minor or quite severe.

Alice Lynch works with an organization called Tracks Autism. She has been studying Kaspar’s effect on students in the classroom.

Lynch says the robot has had a major effect on the behavior of the students. She notes there was one boy who could not eat with his classmates. But now after “feeding” Kaspar, he has begun to take part, or integrate himself, in classroom activities. For example, he now eats meals with other students.

"And then we started doing it with Kaspar and he really, really enjoyed feeding Kaspar, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. And now he's started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers."

Ben Robins says research like this is important. It shows that what the child learns with Kaspar transfers to other situations or contexts in his or her life.

"This long-term study is very important, because it's important to see is there's any transference of these skills when they play with the robot into other context like in the classroom or at home; what's happened outside the context of the robot."

The Kaspar robot is still in development. However, its designers say their goal is to see every child who could benefit from the robot get their very own Kaspar.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Faith Lapidus reported this story for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted her report for Learning English. She included information from several autism websites. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

therapist n. a person who helps people deal with mental or emotional problems by talking about those problems : a person trained in psychotherapy

flexible adj. able to change or to do different things

integrate v. to make (a person or group) part of a larger group or organization — usually + into

peer n. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else

transfer v. to move (someone or something) from one place to another

transference n. the act of moving something from one place to another

context n. the situation in which something happens : the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens


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