By Lisa Raiford, Ed.D.
“Why would you use a robot to teach social skills to children with autism?”
That was the question I heard from the start. It was a question I pondered after having the opportunity to implement a social skills robotic program for children with autism for the state of South Carolina. And yet, after meeting Dr. Greg Firn of Robokind, and spending three months researching the program and others like it, the thought of its implementation did not seem so far-fetched.
During my first week on a new job supporting autism, I had the opportunity to learn about Robots4autism and its evidence-based curriculum. At the same time, in this position of Education Associate for Autism for the State Department of Education in South Carolina, I was surveying to determine how we could help our educators support their students with autism.
They needed a viable curriculum that supported the remediation of social skills, communication, and behavior and emotional regulation deficits. The Robots4Autism curriculum could provide this.
After making this determination, every aspect of the implementation process needed to be done with intention and planned with the purpose of considering what outcomes we wanted:
- Data surrounding the specific needs of each district
- The Individual Education Program goals of each student
- Training needs of the implementing staff
Not only was our goal to have students master the skills learned through the program lessons, but more importantly the generalization of the learned skills. Our goal was not to replace teachers with a robot, but rather to support their teaching with tools that they could implement with confidence, and to give them a progress monitoring program to realistically measure their students’ outcomes.
The districts chosen to participate were given prerequisites for the students – the curriculum needed to fit the students’ programming needs rather than make the students fit the program. We also wanted to be sure that schools had the infrastructure they needed to implement the program fluidly, including wifi strength, port access and tablets to support the program application and software. Finally, we needed to be sure to support our implementers with collaborative training through RoboKind experts and the State Department of Education. Once the entire process was outlined, implementation began with the understanding that this would be a three-year pilot in which each chosen district had ongoing support in order to maintain the fidelity of the program and increase the likelihood of the desired outcomes.
Coming to the end of year-two of the pilot, we are excited to see our implementers still vested in the program, and thus, our students continuing to make gains. Progress monitoring data show continual mastery of lessons, and implementers share anecdotal data of the generalization of the learned skills in the natural environment – our ultimate goal. Students, educators, and parents are aware of the student outcomes from using this technology of the humanoid robot and its curriculum. The program has been and continues to be a perfect way to provide our educators with a teaching tool that engages our students who need it the most, and answers the question of why we teach social skills to students with autism with the help of a robot!
Lisa Raiford, Ed.D. is the South Carolina Department of Education’s Associate for Autism.