UWE Bristol researchers are investigating how robots can be used to support young people with autism.
The team, which includes academics from the fields of education, robotics and architecture, are studying the effects that socially intelligent robots can have whole being used in schools.
Unlike previous research, which has focused mainly on testing robots with autistic people within laboratories and controlled settings, the UWE Bristol study in a special needs school during term time. The project begins in November 2020, ready for the robot, known as Pepper, to be used in a school in Somerset in spring 2021.
‘‘This project is particularly exciting as it is one of the few studies which places a robot in real classrooms and we are putting the pupil and teacher experience at the centre of the research,” says Dr Nigel Newbutt, senior research in digital education.
“All of our work will be guided and shaped by this important input. We consider an inclusive approach to research with autistic groups to be vital when working to understand their priorities, opportunities and challenges in using technology.”
Researchers will work with autistic pupils and their teachers for two months. Pepper will interact with children during lessons and support with learning activities.
From this, researchers will be able to observe and learn how robots can be best used by schools to engage pupils in social and learning opportunities.
The research project will actively include teachers in the study and will be coronavirus-safe, with cleaning measures in place.
As a socially intelligent robot, Pepper can partake in simple social and physical activities with children, such as storytelling and games.
Programmed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Pepper’s behaviours and commands will focus on helping autistic children to improve at tasks that are typically a struggle with, such as social communication skills, joint attention and exercising.
‘‘We already know that robots can offer a range of benefits to people with autism but now we can explore exactly how they work in a school setting and how children and teachers can make the best use of them; in areas identified by the pupils and teachers themselves,” Dr Newbutt adds.
“It will be particularly interesting to see how pupils view and engage with the robot. For example, it could be seen as a friend, teaching assistant or simply a piece of equipment.’’
Previous research has shown that autistic people often work better with a robot partner instead of a human one, and that robots can be effective in helping children with autism to develop their communication and fine motor skills.
Pepper costs around £20,000, but Dr Newbutt says that are a worthwhile investment: ‘‘Research in this area is still in its early stages but it has shown that robots can be effective in supporting autistic children while augmenting their learning development.
“Of course, robots can represent a big initial investment for schools, but the investment could be supported with greater evidence and research exploring how, why and where such technologies offer “value-added” contexts in schools. Our research project intends to start this conversation so that schools may consider engaging with robot technology in the future.’’
All photos: UWE Bristol