Kids with autism and other developmental disorders often struggle with social skills. Now they can get help, somewhat ironically, from a robot.
Leka, a robotic smart toy designed to teach multiple skills, helps coach children through games like hide and seek. One child shakes the robot to activate it, hides it, and the other child follows the robot listening to the sound that it makes.
When the designers tested it with a child with autism and another with Down syndrome, after some time, they were able to play on their own—something that they didn't do before. "They were able to play autonomously without the parents or caregiver being there," says Ladislas de Toldi, the Paris-based co-founder and CEO of Leka.
The designers first started working on the robot in engineering school and then decided to keep developing it. After meeting with parents, children, therapists, and special education schools, they realized that technology wasn't being used in this way.
"Technology is used a lot in special education tools, but it doesn't improve motor skills because you can use it sitting on a couch or sitting at a table, and you don't have to use your whole body," de Toldi says. "Robotics is not used at all, except for research. For research, the robots that are used are very, very expensive—tens of thousands of dollars."
Still, the research showed that robots could be helpful. "If you have a child, a robot, and a caregiver, the child will interact more with the caregiver through the robot—the robot becomes a bridge of interaction and communication between the child and his surroundings," he says.
At $490, Leka still isn't cheap, but unlike the research robots, at least some families can afford it. So far, apps include a picture-matching game that asks children to find real objects: If it shows a picture of a banana, they have to go find an actual banana and show it to the robot. Another game helps kids learn colors, again by finding colors around a room. With each of the games, each based on research, the key is to keep kids moving.
"The most important feature that robotics bring is the ability to work on motor skills," says de Toldi. "Because the robot moves around, the child has to use his whole body to interact with the robot. And this way it opens up the child to his surroundings."
The robot can be customized for a particular child's needs; if they don't like certain sounds or bright lights, those can be turned off. Over time, the robot gives caregivers detailed data on progress the child makes. This fall, the designers will begin a clinical trial to measure the benefit the robot can provide, and they say that the anecdotal feedback so far has been positive: caregivers say that the robot helps kids become more engaged.
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All Photos: via Leka