Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autism, Robotics and Apple's iPad

Regular use of iPad on left -- unintended use for autistic kids on right
Here's an unintended consequence of the iPad that is having wonderful results with disabled kids, particularly those with spectrum disorders and communication problems.

There was a poignant story in the SF Chronicle that appears to be the most informative thus far on the subject.
http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-08-11/news/ihelp-for-autism/
Even the WSJ had an online story that included a quote from Steve Jobs on the subject:
"We take no credit for this, and that's not our intention," Mr. Jobs said, adding that the emails he gets from parents resonate with him. "Our intention is to say something is going on here," and researchers should "take a look at this."
I think the groundswell of uses and apps is touching and important.  Many of those apps are referenced in the SF Chronicle article. Perhaps it will speed up the robotic projects for the low end (hard cases) of the spectrum - projects which are wanting for funding to execute meaningful testing.

Here's a quote from a Los Angeles psychologist that works daily with autistic kids within the school system:
Lots of my kids are using iPads -- especially my kids with limited expressive language or who struggle with retrieval challenges. Because the iPad is not static -- it can be accessed from every angle -- it facilitates greater usage.
The ease of use and low cost of the iPad make it suitable for all these apps.  Before the iPad, parents and school systems had to beg MediCare and other providers for $8,000 or so for a product and software that was similar but with less flexibility, speed, intuitive use and range of software apps as that provided by the iPad.

Some very poignant and informative videos are available on youTube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulf11Kg8-lI&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfRSENIQaFc
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3VNwDqKhCM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vomkNSluWW4
A few good resources describing these new iPad apps can be found here:
http://www.autismhangout.com/
http://www.gadgetsdna.com/10-revolutionary-ipad-apps-to-help-autistic-children/5522/
http://www.interbots.com/blog/autism-therapy/
Have these iPad apps provided the lift therapists and educators need to help them help their disabled kids or is there still a need for robots? A very strong "YES" say the psychologists, educators and therapists that I've discussed this with.  The number of cases is so large and the range of disabilities so extensive that many different treatment methodologies are needed.  Robots have the patience and discipline that difficult cases require.  One notable robotic project that works in this arena is Kaspar.

Kaspar is a small likable robot developed at the University of Hertfordshire where Drs. Kerstin Dautenhahn and Ben Olsen have demonstrated this relatively inexpensive and very portable robot designed specifically to interact with low-spectrum level autistic children.

Dautenhahn and Olsen have had some successes with their robot and they showed me videos of children interacting with the robot and then sharing their excitement with their teacher or parent - a social response not typical of children with this disorder. They had many similar successful anecdotal stories and recently lent one of their Kaspar robots to another University for a more extensive study of 29 autistic children.  The results will be available soon and their hope is that the results will confirm what they have observed: that there is long-lasting social improvement by utilizing the robot as part of the overall therapy with the child.

Dautenhahn and Olsen, when I visited last month, were frustrated that they were unable to raise enough money to run a larger study of their own to prove the benefits of Kaspar's type of robotic interaction.  I was moved by their plight and have suggested the story to some of my reporter friends hoping that a favorable article would give them some attention and perhaps interest a donor or two to help them achieve their goals.  Got bucks?