A school in South Carolina tests whether a robot can be a bridge to deeper human connection for autistic children.
Holding the 10-year-old boy by the hand, occupational therapist Krista Stephens leads Joshua into her classroom, where a two-foot-tall talking robot awaits them.
“You ready to work with Milo?” asks Stephens, guiding Joshua to a seat at a small table where he and Milo the robot practice standard greetings and social behaviors that would seem basic for most children—but not for autistic kids. “Say hi to Milo,” Stephens prompts, as Joshua reaches to touch the robot’s hand when it waves to him, then mimics the wave with his own hand. “Say hi to Milo,” Joshua repeats.
Fourth grader Joshua is one of 10 autistic students working with Milo at Lester Elementary, a 445-student school in Florence, South Carolina, where one in four students is autistic. Sixteen districts in the state are test-driving Milo as part of a three-year pilot with the state Department of Education that will determine if there’s enough student benefit to bring the robot to more schools.
Released in 2013 by RoboKind, Milo features voice-activated lessons that aim to bolster autistic students’ communication, social and emotional, and behavioral skills. Alongside an educator, students work through modules like identifying emotions and expressing empathy following Milo’s verbal prompts and facial cues. In a session, Milo’s face may move through a range of expressions—angry, sad, happy, frustrated—his head and boy-like body will turn from side-to-side, and he will even dance sometimes for correct responses.