Monday, December 30, 2013

Can Robots Play a Role in Improving Lives of Autistic Individuals?

Lately I am noticing a lot of interest from the robotics community in developing robots to help autistic individuals.  Some of these efforts are based on technology push, i.e., people have developed a cool new robot and they would like to see if autistic individuals can benefit from using it.  Some efforts are genuinely targeted at understanding the needs of the autistic individuals and developing solutions to help them.

This post shares my thoughts on this topic based on our family’s experiences in raising an autistic daughter. Let me begin by setting the context.  Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects the brain development.  Representative symptoms associated with autism include difficulty with social interaction, limited verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism face many challenges in their daily lives.

The intensity of symptoms associated with autism can vary from mild to very severe and there is a considerable variation in symptoms.  Experts use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to refer to autism and related disorders.  It is often said that no two autistic individuals are alike. According to the recent statistics, one out of every eighty eight children born in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD.  Unfortunately, there is no known medical cure for autism, making it a pressing social problem.

Individuals with ASD struggle every day to live in the world designed for neuro-typical individuals.  Most autistic individuals are hyper sensitive and often experience sensory overloads. Sounds, smells, and sights that might appear normal to most people often can overpower the senses of autistic individuals. They use stimulatory repetitive behaviors to compensate for the sensory overload.  Many autistic individuals struggle with language. They have a basic understanding of the vocabulary and grammar, but advanced language concepts are often foreign to them. Many autistic individuals are good in picking up body language cues from their peers and can sense the disapproval and rejection of their behaviors by their neuro-typical peers. However, most autistic individuals are helpless in controlling their behaviors; their own bodies and brains betray them every day.

Here is how the world might appear to an autistic teen as he/she goes through the daily life. Imagine that you are in the 10th grade science class.  The heating system in the class is making a really loud annoying thumping noise. This is crippling your ability to think. You try to cover your ears and start humming to drown that excruciating sound.  Your science teacher is delivering the science lecture in a “foreign language”. You understand the basics, but you are unable to follow the advanced vocabulary being used in the class. You are extremely frustrated and the stress is making it impossible for you to sit in your seat, so you are constantly fidgeting. You are noticing disapproving looks from your peers who find you weird and annoying. You are feeling humiliated and unwelcome in the class. You would like to fit in, but you are unable to control movements of your own body. The teacher has just announced that the next class will have a quiz. Quizzes make you really anxious and now you can feel a knot forming in your stomach.  Nausea has kicked in and the simple task of walking from Science classroom to English classroom appears to be a Herculean task.    

Unfortunately,  parents are often helpless and unable to eliminate the pain and suffering of their ASD children.  Providing care for autistic individuals can be emotionally and physically exhausting.   Most parents try very hard to improve lives of their children
. Unfortunately, they also worry non-stop as to what will happen to their ASD sons and daughters as they grow old and unable to care for them.  Unfortunately, there is no good answer.  This can be a tiring, frustrating, and heart-breaking experience.  But this unfortunate adversity in life also showcases the resiliency of the human spirit. You meet so many individuals who do not give up and continue to fight incredibility hard to put one more smile on the faces of their loved ones and make the world a fair place by demanding universal accessibility.
Given this background, the question is - can robots play a role in improving the lives of autistic individuals?  We will have to approach this question very carefully as learning to interact with humans is a key to the survival of autistic individuals in the neuro-typical world. Robots should not try to reduce the human involvement in the lives of autistic individuals. However, robots can be useful in one of the following situations:
  1. Increasing the human interaction will be detrimental to the intended outcome.
  2. The use of robots can significantly improve the quality of life for autistic individuals.
  3. Humans with the right expertise are not available to meet the needs of autistic individuals.
Here are my preliminary thoughts on potential applications of robots based on the above described situations.  
  • Overcoming Positive Interaction Deficit: The human brain is wired to seek positive social interaction. Many autistic individuals also crave positive social interaction. However, it is very hard for them to interact with neuro-typical individuals and this can be quite frustrating for them. The lack of adequate amount of positive social interaction can lead to severe depression. In my opinion, there is no good way for us to overcome positive interaction deficit faced by autistic individuals by increasing the human interaction.  Human interaction is extremely important, but simply increasing the amount of human interaction does not mean that autistic individuals perceive this increase in a positive light. In fact, many autistic individuals prefer to interact with animals instead of humans because animals are non-judgmental and reciprocate affection unconditionally.  However, many autistic individuals are unable to take care of pets. I believe that robots can be designed to entertain, stimulate positive interaction, and uplift the moods of autistic individuals. Such robots must be carefully designed to ensure that they fulfill the positive interaction deficit and not try to replace the need for interacting with humans.       
  • Improving Safety and Independence:  Many autistic individuals lack the basic notions of safety. This significantly worries caregivers and interferes with the freedom and personal space of autistic individuals. I believe that robotics-based technologies can be developed and adopted to enhance safety and independence of autistic individuals. These technologies can be used for safety monitoring (e.g., kitchen stove is switched off after use, medicine was taken on time), assist with household chores (e.g., cleaning), and navigation in complex surroundings (e.g., finding a store in a mall). There are many interesting technologies being developed for assisted living facilities that might find use in homes of autistic individuals. These technologies are not likely to look like a typical robot, but we should not care about the form.        
  • Improving Training and Education:  We have to find a way to create meaningful employment opportunities for autistic individuals. Not doing this will create a significant financial strain on the rest of the society. Many autistic individuals have natural talents such as computers, music, and mathematics. These talents should be nurtured and harnessed. Learning to function well in the society will require developing appropriate social interaction skills such as making eye contact, reacting appropriately to facial expressions and body language, and making small talk. Currently autistic individuals get very limited opportunities to practice and hone these skills. Robots can be designed to enable autistic individuals to practice these skills for extended periods of time. It is very difficult to put effective special education teachers in all the classrooms with autistic children. Telepresence robots might be able to expand that geographic reach of superstar special education teachers and contribute to the training of autistic individuals.                   
I believe robots can play a useful role in improving the lives of autistic individuals, but we should take extreme care to ensure that robots do not displace humans from the lives of ASD individuals. Ultimately, human contact and interaction will be vital for ASD individuals to function well in the society.