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The Adventure of Writing Curriculum for a Robot

on Jan 25, 2018 6:00:00 PM By Jeff Goodman | 0 Comments | Company Blog
Written By Michelle McFarlin Milo the robot is inherently fascinating to kids: he looks like a kid, he talks, he makes a wide range of facial expressions, and he even dances. But what gives Milo the potential to change the lives of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the curriculum that he teaches. I co-wrote that curriculum with Dr. Pam Rollins, and when my co-writers and I first started imagining what a program for kids with ASD might include, we began with a simple but powerful question: “How do we lay the foundational skills to make these kids successful?” We researched evidence-based practices and selected the ones we felt were best suited to Milo. We also used our own knowledge of kids with ASD, which we have gathered over a combined 50 years of personal experience. As the founder and director of the Social Communication Connection, I focus on assessment and therapy for social, speech, and language skills for students who have ASD, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and other challenges when it comes to social communication. Combining my passion for helping these kids with my love of technology made writing the curriculum for Milo what I jokingly refer to as “the greatest gifted and talented project of all time.” We were able to leverage cutting-edge robotics technology, tablet technology, and the most current evidence-based practices for teaching social skills to create something that had never been done before. The curriculum uses social narratives to explain situations that might be unfamiliar to kids with ASD. As Milo is saying the social narratives, the students see “subtitles” in the form of visual icons on Milo’s chest screen. The students are also shown video models on the tablet, examples of the target social skill or set of social skills being performed by actors of a variety of ages and ethnicities across settings. Over and above all of these levels of support is the teacher, who facilitates every interaction that a student has with Milo. The modules are broken into four main groupings: Introductory Modules (including a set of pre-test/game lessons and the Calm Down module); Conversational Modules; Emotional Understanding Modules; and Situational Modules. Across modules, each lesson begins by defining a target social skill with specific expectations, and breaks down social interaction. Getting Kids Started with Milo Students are first introduced to Milo using very simple games like Follow the Leader and Find It. These games were planned to have a dual purpose: on one hand, they help the facilitator to determine if the student has the necessary prerequisite skills of being able to recognize icons, understand cause and effect, and answer yes/no questions; and on the other hand, they help the student learn that Milo is safe and fun, and they create a set of expectations for the student of how Milo sounds and how he moves. Students who are deemed to be a good fit for the curriculum start with the “calm down modules,” which teach them strategies to manage their emotions. These strategies include counting to 10, using words to describe their feelings, squeezing a stress ball, taking a deep breath, or taking a break. As Milo works with students, the facilitator learns which tactics students prefer so he or she can activate the appropriate lesson to walk the child through the process of calming down using the preferred tool. After the calm-down modules, students can move on to the conversational modules (to work on greeting, leave-taking, and the back-and-forth of social conversation); situational modules that are designed to teach skills for specific situations; and modules that explore emotional understanding. We started the set of conversational modules with the greeting module because even highly verbal students with social skills challenges may struggle combining eye gaze, smiling, and a greeting word. Some even skip greeting altogether and may skip to the “meat” of a conversation. A common misconception about children with social skills challenges like ASD is that they aren’t empathetic. In my personal experience, these children are HIGHLY empathetic, but they just don’t process emotion or express empathy in typical ways. These students may not be able to read the facial expressions of others and tie them to a specific emotion. Even if they do, they may not know how to respond appropriately, to comfort a crying loved one for instance. The emotional understanding modules start by teaching them to identify expressions on other people. This is where a robot has an advantage over a person because often, social anxiety makes it hard for students with autism to look at other people’s faces for a long time. Not only can they look at Milo’s face, but they can listen to him describe emotions as a sequence of body-part movements. (“When I’m surprised, my eyebrows go up, my eyes are open wide, and my mouth is open.”) Facial expressions are taught on Milo the robot, in still photos of Milo, and videos of Milo. Then, the students are taught to generalize their knowledge by looking at still photos of actors and videos of actors of different ages and ethnicities. This repetition reinforces the lesson, promotes generalization, and allows students to repeat each module or lesson as many times as they want or need. A Labor of Love Helping to create the curriculum for Milo was a true labor of love for me. I worked with an illustrator to create the symbols that Milo displays. Many of videos that accompany the lessons were shot in my house, and include my voice. I am proud of the fact that my voice is able to reach kids worldwide, some of whom have not had access to individualized social skills training of any kind. Communication is about connecting with people, and if we don’t give them the skills they need, it really limits their ability to go out in the world and succeed. Having the academic skills to succeed in a classroom is one thing; but if they don’t have the social skills necessary to succeed in a classroom environment, they won’t even be able to be there to learn. I’m proud of what Milo can do, and we have big plans for what he’ll do next. Now that we have modules to help kids identify emotions, we want to take the next step and help them understand what to do when they react to emotions in themselves and others. We also want Milo to present situational modules for older kids: things like lunchroom procedures, what to do in the event of a fire drill, how to behave during an assembly, and making transitions. Mastering these skills will help kids with ASD to function and succeed in the classroom, allowing them and the kids around them to have a better learning experience. Michelle McFarlin, MS, CCC-SLP, is the director of Social Communication Connection. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University; and a Master’s of Science in Communication Disorders from the University of Texas at Dallas-Callier Center for Communication Disorders. She is a certified, clinical speech-language pathologist who specializes in early childhood language, social communication disorders, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
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What Autistic Students Can Learn from Robots

on Dec 29, 2017 6:00:00 PM By Jeff Goodman | 0 Comments | Company Blog
By Fred Margolin In Endrew v. Douglas County, a case decided this March by the United States Supreme Court, the justices found that school districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, “appropriately ambitious” progress. With new research finding that 1 in 45 children ages 3 to 17 has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schools across the country have a duty to provide their students with the inclusive, tailored ASD support mandated by law and ethical standards. Immediate Engagement + Infinite Patience = Life-Changing Lessons Children with ASD often find interactions with teachers and therapists stressful, so they become resistant to learning sessions. Research from the University of Texas at Dallas Callier Center has shown that children with ASD engage with their teachers and therapists 3% of the time. By contrast, they engage with our humanoid robot, Milo, 87% of the time. Milo is 2 ½ feet tall and looks like a child. The Robots4Autism curriculum that he delivers integrates a variety of evidence-based practices in 130 lessons and 1500 video vignettes. He speaks in a measured tone, 82% slower than normal speech, to allow all students to follow what he says. With an expressive face and moving arms and legs, he complements his verbal abilities with clear body language. As another layer of support, when he talks and interacts, symbols simultaneously appear on his chest video display. As a robot, Milo is endlessly patient. When a student’s response is incorrect, Milo simply asks that student to engage in a re-teaching lesson. With the help of Milo and the right teacher or therapist, children with ASD can learn a number of essential life skills. Emotional Self-Regulation The sensory overload that leads to “meltdowns” or behavioral disruptions results in a dramatic loss of instructional time. Consequently, all students in the class can lag behind their grade level. The Robots4Austism “calm down” techniques that Milo delivers enable children to regulate their stress and anxiety. In two weeks, most students embrace what they’ve learned, and disruptions decrease dramatically. According to Elena Ghionis, lead autism specialist for Spartanburg County, “one child who previously had 53 behavioral disturbances in a two-month period had only one in a two-week period after learning self-regulation.” Social Interaction Children who work with Milo learn how to understand facial expressions, identify with others, and interact socially by making eye contact, respecting another’s space, and more. As their understanding grows, so does their confidence and ability to communicate meaningfully. Parents and teachers report that children who previously didn’t initiate conversations begin saying “hello” and talking to their classmates, teachers, and family members. Verbal Expression: After working with Milo, students at almost all levels on the spectrum make more attempts to use language and show expanded vocabulary. Armed with these skills, students with ASD see a rapid increase in their ability to function in school and experience dramatic academic progress. Districts using the Robots4Autism program report that . Teaching these students benefits their families, too. Over the years, we’ve heard from parents about the challenges, the impact, and the conflict in the home, resulting in an unfortunately high divorce rate of parents with ASD children. Siblings may also be scared by constant meltdowns or suffer from lack of attention. Teaching autistic students to regulate themselves and interact with others gives the students a brighter future and makes the whole family happier. Fred Margolin is the co-founder of RoboKind.         
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Understanding Autism Through My Son’s Eyes

on Dec 19, 2017 6:00:00 PM By Jeff Goodman | 1 Comment | Company Blog
By Richard Brooke   My wife and I were very lucky to adopt four amazing children from China, each about 18 months apart from each other in age, and each special in their own way. But our youngest son, Brogan, brought an entirely different challenge to the table.   First Signs It can be hard to tell if a child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at an early age. You start noticing little things that seem out of place or “different” than other children. A few indications could be: lack of expressions by six months, no back-and-forth gestures (like pointing or reaching) by 12 months, and no words by 16 months. We noticed Brogan was hand-shy and would pull away when we first adopted him in China. If you moved quickly, he would flinch and pull back. It was evident from the scarring on his forehead and missing front teeth that he had been abused at the orphanage, probably because he could be difficult and hard to manage. He could be manic, and he would flap his arms like a bird, twist his hands, pull his hair, and he would not make eye contact. He was different than our other children. When it came time for school, that brought its own unique challenges and pain. It was heart-wrenching to have my beautiful son come home and say, “Why doesn’t anyone like me? Why does everyone think I am weird? Why doesn’t anyone want to invite me to birthday parties or be my friend?” At age six, he was diagnosed with ASD. The doctors said he was on the high part of the functioning side of the spectrum. We were told to focus on consistency and avoid changes that would upset his standard balance and flow, and above all else, to be patient. That being said, it was paramount for us to learn different strategies to make his days a little more manageable. My wife and I know that there is no such thing as a perfect adoption, and each child will have issues and need special love and support. When Brogan arrived, it was really frustrating to see him struggle so much. Often times, those with ASD will not ask for help. My son wouldn’t raise his voice or say anything, and could easily disappear in school, scouts, or sports if we were not careful. It takes so much time, patience, energy, and love to support those with ASD because they are wired differently. For instance, when it is time for homework at our house, it can be so easy to get impatient because I find myself repeating things over and over again, and it is just human to get frustrated and tired. Patience is the key with our son as it is with most kids on the spectrum.   What Brought Me to Robots4Autism After meeting with Dr. Greg Firn at RoboKind, I knew that this is where I needed to be. My decision to work with Robots4Autism was fueled by my desire to help children with ASD and their families, and provide answers and assistance to uncover the personal genius in each learner. Since working at RoboKind, I have realized that my passion truly lies in making it easier for teachers to teach, students to learn, and parents to be involved. Selling in education is a calling. It is not easy, but the rewards are tremendous. When I saw a video of Milo, I watched children truly engage with him. There is a dire need for encouraging kids with autism to develop their social, emotional, and behavioral skills and move forward. The people I work with understand the struggles ASD learners, families, and teachers experience. I empathize with them and share their passion to make a difference. I connect them with tools that set up the next generation with ASD for great success. It’s evident that these tools work, too. Research from the University of Texas at Dallas Callier Center discovered that students had engaged with Milo 87% of the time, compared to 3% of the time with therapists and teachers.   Hope for the Future Brogan is 11 now and doing awesome. He’s in 5th grade, loves to play basketball, run, and go to birthday parties, sleepovers, and Boy Scouts. He makes great grades—A’s and B’s—and my other children help guide and protect him through everyday challenges. For children like Brogan, Milo is an innovative tool that can provide much-needed support in learning environments. Milo listens, speaks a little slower than humans do, is infinitely more patient than anyone, and has proven to help students stay engaged. Not every solution will be a fix for every kid, but the more support we can offer them, the better. Through therapy, medication, sports, scouts, and family, Brogan has been able to blossom. We have to really empathize with the child’s issues in each case. Those who have ASD do not understand all of their emotions, but they do feel them.   Richard Brooke is a regional sales manager at RoboKind.
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Finding an Ambassador from their World to Ours

on Oct 16, 2017 7:00:00 PM By Jeff Goodman | 0 Comments | Company Blog
One father shares his story of how he helped his autistic son connect with the world, and how it inspired him to help others like him. By Jack Howarth   One in 68 kids in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and my son Brandon is one of them. Brandon’s ASD was very serious, and he was completely nonverbal. As a parent, you want your kids to be happy, but my son didn’t engage with smiles, nor did he return them. He didn’t get excited the way a normal baby would get excited, but instead would just hold out his arms and shake. The neurologist told us he would never be a normal functioning person.   We didn’t know what to do, particularly because back in the 80s, when Brandon was diagnosed, we knew even less about autism than we do now. My wife at the time tried to institutionalize him. As soon as I found out, I rushed to the hospital and demanded they release my son back to me. The next day my wife had packed her bags, and that’s how I became a single father of two boys, the older of whom had autism, and the younger of whom was still in diapers. I wasn’t going to give up on my boy. I knew my son was bright, that he was trapped inside of himself and needed help to get out.   I’ve always worked as a technician, and I can debug computers down to a component level. At the time I worked for IBM, and I brought Brandon in to see the computers. I had access to incredibly advanced technology at the time, and I built a digital version of a human on a computer screen. Brandon would sit in front of it for hours as it talked about facial expressions over and over, teaching him by sheer repetition. I wasn’t a psychologist. I was just a dad doing whatever I could think of to help my son.   Gradually, Brandon learned to communicate and speak. He started by using signs and abbreviations (for instance, he called a Ferris wheel “buckets away”). I didn’t let him keep these crutches, though. I knew he knew how to speak. I incorporated more and more vocabulary into his digital lessons. I would have the digital person repeat words and sentences over and over, and his communication improved even more. We also did a lot of science experiments at home, and Brandon loved them. Even my younger boy, Mark, appreciated them. Every day was a lesson in communication and connecting to the world around us.   Today Brandon is 39, and he owns his own business manufacturing wine cellars and installing them in people’s homes. He still has his quirks, but he’s an extremely focused young man, and incredibly intelligent. He’s taught himself many incredible skills, including playing the piano and speaking Mandarin. (He can also code in Mandarin,) All of Brandon’s friends on the autism spectrum are similarly brilliant (one is converting his Honda to run on steam). I believe all kids with ASD have this kind of potential, and letting that potential go untapped is like letting a diamond sit around unpolished. I think one of these kids will find the cure for cancer. One of them will find the solution to endless energy.   As a parent who used technology to help my child who was deemed non-functioning, I was fascinated when I discovered the work RoboKind was doing with their Robots4Autism curriculum. It was very similar to the program I created for my boy (of course mine was more rudimentary). I watched the video of Cole they have on their website and I cried like a baby. I thought, “I’ve got to be part of this.”   When it comes to kids diagnosed with ASD, Milo is the ambassador from our world to theirs. After I had been hired by RoboKind, I was doing a demo at a school. It was in a gymnasium, and there were kids running around everywhere while I showed the adults how Milo worked. Milo gave his usual introduction: “Hello! My name is Milo. How are you?” A young boy ran right up to him and responded, “Hi, my name’s Noah.” The teachers behind me started weeping. Noah had never spoken a word until then. Noah’s mom called the school that night overjoyed, asking about her son’s new friend, Milo. As a parent, nothing makes me happier than to see my boy succeed. I want every kid like him to succeed, too. As a society, I don’t think we can afford to not help these kids. For one thing, if they can’t become contributing members of society, the money to take care of them in adulthood is going to come out of our pockets. Even more importantly we want these kids to be productive members of society because each one has something incredible to offer, if only we can give them the ability to share it.   Jack Howarth is a regional sales manager at RoboKind.
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