Robot. Credit: Alex Knight/Unsplash

Robots become allies in care for children with special needs

Technology companies launch equipment to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities. They provide support in the academic, therapeutic and emotional development stages

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already present in our lives, for example, in the automatic attendance via chatbots (programs that simulate a human being in the conversation), aside from being indispensable in the control and analysis of data. For decades, robots have been instrumental in the mechanical production of industries and factories. Currently, they are entering the market as autonomous and humanoid cars that will help people in domestic and professional tasks.

In health, artificial intelligence has also proved useful, collaborating with more assertive diagnoses and helping with the daily care of those who need some kind of dedicated attention. Children and adolescents have benefited from these new technologies, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and learning disabilities.

Here are five examples of robots that help people with these difficulties.

QTrobot, by LuxAI

LuxAI, based in Luxembourg, Europe, has just released QTrobot, a robot designed to reduce the discomfort of ASD patients during interactions with human therapists. In tests, in the presence of a robot and an adult, the company has found that children aged 4 to 14 spend twice as much time looking at robots as they do at adults. Yet, the repetitive behaviors, which show discomfort and anxiety, occurred about twice less in sessions with robots than in sessions with adults.

Kaspar, by the University of Hertfordshire

Kaspar has been known since 2017, when it came into use in England. Kaspar is a 4-year-old-child sized robot and responds to tactile stimuli. It autonomously reacts with empathy and excitement to touch. If Kasper crosses the border, he moves away and retracts. Kasper was designed by the University of Hertfordshire to improve the lives of children with ASD. Tests with almost two hundred children showed that Kaspar performs very well its role of training children to interact in daily situations.

Leka, by Smart Toys

Despite being an innovation, robot-assisted therapy has been studied for more than a decade. Leka, for example, was developed in 2014 by Marine Couteau and Ladislas de Toldi, and was designed especially for children with learning difficulties. Leka can help them develop social skills through play, responding to the child's stimuli: if Leka is hit or is thrown on the floor, its face expression turns to sad. Thus, the robot encourages social interaction and helps to develop motor, cognitive and emotional skills.

NAO and Pepper, by Softbank Robotics

NAO and Pepper are other two commercial robots developed by Softbank Robotics. Both have high performance and human appearance. They are recommended for domestic living and professional environments, helping with agendas, administration, research and educational functions. They are recommended for young children with special needs. Using applications that combine activities according to the specific needs of children, they can be adapted by student platforms from primary school to higher education levels.

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Brazil and in the world

According to data by the Center of Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), a US federal agency, about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, and the number is growing every year. In 2000, the survey showed 1 in 150 births had ASD. It is estimated that 70 million people worldwide have ASD, 2 million of them in Brazil. It is a lifelong neurological condition that manifests during early childhood, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is mainly characterized by difficulties in social interaction, unusual verbal and nonverbal communication, strong interest in specific subjects, routine tendencies, difficulties in regular communication, particular ways of processing sensory information and repetitive behaviors. The occurrence is four times more common in boys than in girls, but what causes autism is not yet known.

World Autism Awareness Day is celebrated on April 2.  This year, the United Nations points out the need to empower women and girls with ASD, facilitating diagnosis and engaging all of them in the discussions on the challenges faced by people with ASD. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlights the barriers to education and employment, as well as not having their reproductive rights respected and the freedom to make their own choices. The UN also stresses that gender equality efforts must reach out to all women and girls in the world, calling on the international community to observe the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Goal 5 deals specifically with gender equality. The document is about mitigating all forms of discrimination, violence, premarital or forced marriages, female mutilation and guaranteed participation of women and girls in processes of leadership, decision making and responsibilities. According to UNESCO data, girls in primary education face disadvantage in access to education in most regions of the world.  In Asia, for example, for each group of 100 out-of-school male adolescents, there are 132 female adolescents to whom the right to education is denied.