By Astrid Liddel

 

Some people on the autism spectrum might seem like robots trying to discover how to be human.  As an individual diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I can tell you that robots and autism can be a helpful mix.  Although modern robot therapy is used primarily in helping children, perhaps someday robots will be used to help people of all ages with ASD.

One reason robots are useful is that children with ASD may respond better to robots than to people.  Probably, this is because objects in general are easier for children with autism to observe (Robots to help children with autism, 2017).  However, robot therapy is currently very labor-intensive.  For example, picture a therapist laboriously controlling a robot’s every move to deliver programming (Kobie, 2018).  One study has suggested devising new methods for analyzing data and emotions so that robot therapy can focus more on the child and less on the robot (Kobie, 2018).  That’s a great idea!

But how does it work?  Robots can help children with ASD by reinforcing skills the children are already learning, such as making eye contact with other people.  In one study, children played games designed to improve social interaction, while a home robot occasionally reminded the children to interact with their parents (Schembri, 2018).  The study showed improvement in the children’s social skills (Kobie, 2018).  But robot therapy is still relatively new, and there is much scientists still have left to learn about its effects.

There are also confounding variables.  Others reviewing the same study note that the children also received therapy without robots, so it’s hard to say how much impact the robots had on their development (Schembri, 2018).  Still, the study presents strong evidence that robots could effectively supplement traditional therapy in helping children to interact better with other people.

Not everyone is on board with this treatment, however.  Even though robots can teach children behaviors addressed in traditional therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy and applied behavior analysis, some have raised ethics concerns.  For instance, some worry that using robots in therapy will only further the stereotype of individuals with ASD behaving like robots (Kobie, 2018).  Some mistakenly believe that people with autism lack empathy or emotions (Kobie, 2018).  Robots used in autism therapy could possibly cause harm by appearing to support this assumption.

Others believe that autism robots are just a technological fad that doesn’t give kids what they need.  Or that more traditional therapies, such as art therapy, which could be helpful don’t get the funding they need when that funding is funneled into trends like robots (Kobie, 2018).  In addition, while robots can be helpful for autism, there is some research suggesting that robots do not significantly improve social skills (Schembri, 2018). There are even concerns that robots might cause children to isolate themselves more, rather than engage in necessary interaction with others (Kobie, 2018).

Robots and artificial intelligence are one of my special interests.  So, personally I’m excited by the prospect, rather than against this fascinating technology to help kids.  As an individual with ASD (with a special interest in robots), I also relate to the idea of robots in ways you might not necessarily expect.  I don’t see robots as devoid of emotion or empathy.  Instead, I see them as beings that struggle with being different in a world filled with people they can’t understand.  I can relate to that!

You’re probably familiar with many films that show robots attempting to gain a better sense of humanity, such as WALL-E or The Iron Giant. In these films, robots show themselves as capable of learning, love, and change.  Similarly, people with autism are full of compassion, feeling, and a drive to learn.  In this way, robots are very much like people with autism; at least, this is how I can relate to robots.  If we use robots to help people who are different to relate better to others, robots could very well be worth our time and money.

As always, however, people should recognize the limits of technology and the need for personal interaction.  While a helpful addition to therapy kids are already receiving, robots cannot replace interaction with a real human.  Technology can be addictive and an easy way to pretend we are receiving adequate social interaction when what we’re really doing is isolating ourselves from others (Kobie, 2018).  Robots are just one piece of tech we need to use for what it’s worth and watch with a careful eye.

An ideal future for everyone with ASD is one where many different types of technology are used to create a better world.  Robots might be just one part of that world.  If that’s all they remain—part of a collection of helpful approaches—robots might have value in autism therapy.

Imagine a world where robots, instead of rising to destroy humanity, become helpers who allow those with disabilities to integrate with the rest of the world.  Isn’t this a world we want? Or would we prefer to view robots as just another menacing piece of technology invading our lives?  The choice is up to us, the current and future generations of individuals with autism.

 

References

Kobie, N. (2018, July 18). The questionable ethics of treating autistic children with robots. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/autisim-children-treatment-robots

Schembri, F.  (2018, August 22). How 30 days with an in-home robot could help children with autism. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/how-30-days-home-robot-could-help-children-autism

U.  (2017, June 28).  Robots to help children with autism.  Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://phys.org/news/2017-06-robots-children-autism.html

 


Astrid Liddel is a CBS staff member and blogger publishing under a pseudonym.

Disclaimer: This article is for general information only, and is not intended (nor should it be relied upon) as health care or other advice regarding your specific circumstances. Individual circumstances and outcomes vary, and the statements or recommendations in this article may not apply to you. Please contact your health care provider regarding any specific issue or problem.  The opinions expressed in this post are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of CBS.

©2018 by Center for Behavioral Sciences, Inc.  All rights reserved.