March 21, 2009

Robot Aids Children With Learning Difficulties

Robots and computers are being used to treat symptoms of autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders in children, the AFP reported.

A small blue-and-yellow android called Cosmo has offered some hope for kids like 18-month-old Kevin, who showed the first signs of learning difficulties, which were later diagnosed as developmental dyspraxia.

Kevin has difficulty with specific skills like pronouncing consonants, matching cause and effect or grasping relative concepts like better and faster.

Cosmo is programmed to respond to body movements, voice activation, or a four-button-panel dubbed "mission control," designed to teach basic behavioral and physical skills to children with developmental disorders.

Cosmo can gesticulate, reproduce phrases and move around when directed. He also cheers and gives clues to help children complete specific tasks.

Minnesota's globally acclaimed Mayo Clinic has shown great interest in the robot's potential to help children, as researchers there are conducting a second phase medical trial to see if the robot can help kids with cerebral palsy develop movements more quickly than traditional methods.

Krista Coleman-Wood, a physical therapist at Mayo's biomechanical and motion analysis laboratory, said the trial is going extremely well so far.

Kids in the program are fitted with a glove containing sensors. Then researches have them make movements that copy and are copied by Cosmo, building up muscle tissue and improving motor skills.

It is too early to say if children make more progress with the robot than through traditional physical therapy, but fun levels are clearly in the robot's favor, according to Coleman-Wood.

The practice of robot-aided therapy could expand if Cosmo's designers have successful trial runs.

"It can vastly improve on traditional and computer-based learning, serving simultaneously as a toy, a friend and a teacher," said the robot's inventor, Corinna Lathan.

Lathan, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also plans experiments for NASA through her research and development firm AnthroTronix, added that manipulating a mouse or a keyboard is not the same as directly manipulating your environment.

"There is a lot of research that indicates if you want to learn social skills or spatial skills, that interacting in a three dimensional space, not just on flat screen or computer is helpful," she said.

She believes Cosmo can also help improve behavioral problems, such as lack of focus, which frequently accompany learning disabilities.

Lathan told AFP: "The idea is that rather than hiding in front of a computer you are actually starting to interact with a peer and the hope is that that starts to transfer to other peers, human peers -- adults, care givers, parents."

Patty Fitzgerald, Kevin's mother, said the last 12 months with Cosmo have proven revolutionary.

When Kevin first started working on his disability there would be times when she couldn't get him out of the car if he knew it would be something challenging, she said.

"Now if I mention that Cosmo is going to be here, or the computer, he comes running down the hallway," she added.

Fortunately, Kevin's progress could allow him to continue to attend conventional schools, even if some adaptations are necessary, according to Fitzgerald.

She said aside from improvements in behavior, Kevin has picked up some reading and counting skills and he can write his name.

"We would love to see him as an adult man, working a job, having a family, that kind of thing, so, as much as he can possibly learn: that is our goal."


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