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How AI is changing special education

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a broad range of disorders that include autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Children with ASD typically struggle with verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, imaginative or creative play and sensory processing. They also tend and want to focus on very narrow areas of interest and are impatient and reactive if required to focus on other topics.

These challenges translate into difficulties in the classroom. Children with ASD may not understand what teachers are asking of them, oftentimes missing the subtle nonverbal cues from teachers and fellow students. Because they struggle to understand or interpret nonverbal cues like body-language and facial expressions they often have inappropriate social responses that can lead to bullying and isolation.

Difficulties with imaginative play can hamper a child’s interaction and integration within the class, creating frustration and further problems for both the student and the teacher. Oftentimes children on the ASD spectrum also suffer from sensory issues, meaning they don’t like being touched, have difficulty in noisy environments and in maintaining eye-contact.

We often take for granted how many subtle social interactions make up a day in class, and how much we, as teachers, rely on these to teach effectively. Children with ASD require us, as educators, to reassess simple classroom procedures:

  • move colorful displays out of the eye-line of ASD students,
  • seat them away from air conditioners or the PA to limit audio inputs,
  • seat them at the head of a table to limit touching elbows with other students.

These are simple changes that could make a difference in managing and enabling a better learning environment for ASD students.

Managing anxiety and stress for ASD students in the classroom is an entire sub-topic of its own, and there are many great tools that can help, like The Incredible 5-point Scale.

How AI is changing special education

Technology has also begun to play an interesting role in educating ASD students. In fact, it has been shown that, in general, ASD students respond comparatively well to technological inputs when contrasted with social or human inputs. This aligns with a generally accepted feature of most ASD students — they orient towards objects easier than to people.

This brings us to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the novel ways in which responsive, social robots have started playing a role in teaching ASD children social skills. The idea is that since ASD children are more comfortable around computers, and by extension robots, they are learning key social skills in a manner that feels safe and predictable for them.

Here are a few examples:


Kaspar is a social robot developed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, with the specific intention of developing a learning companion for ASD students. Since 1998 researches have further developed the robot through successive research programs and today 20 robots exist, which have interacted with over 300 ASD students across Britain in educational and clinical settings.

Some of the outcomes include:

  • ASD children that played with Kaspar as a pair demonstrated improved social interaction with each other once Kaspar had been removed from the game.
  • When fitted with sensors that responded to light- or deep-pressure touch researchers found that ADS children began to touch Kaspar more lightly as the session progressed. The study demonstrated the potential to teach children with autism about body parts and appropriate physical interaction.
  • Kaspar has also been programmed to use a knife and fork, comb his hair and brush his teeth — functions that are used to help children with autism with personal hygiene and issues around food and eating.

While Kaspar is currently not full AI — he is remote-controlled by a parent or teacher — the ambition for the research team remains ongoing development that will eventually yield a sophisticated, programmable robot that can independently assist teachers and parents with a number of tricky social challenges for their students and children.


Milo, the robot developed by Robots4Autism, teaches elementary- and middle school-age students the understanding and meaning of emotions and expressions, and demonstrates appropriate social behavior and responses.

Milo has a video screen in his chest that displays symbols which keeps students’ eyes focused on the goals of a lesson even when their ears tune out. The robot also has sensors, cameras, and facial recognition software to capture a child's responses and evaluate progress. Milo comes with a range of pre-programmable curricula, developed by clinical pedagogic experts, that is run via a tablet by the teacher.

With a hefty price-tag at $5,000, however, Milo is currently only available to the most well-resourced ADS and special school programs. Milo does however demonstrate the vast potential of social and companion robots, and the company has a host of testimonial videos from teachers that describe a number of positive outcomes: students that are able to maintain eye-contact, self-regulate their emotions, and feel comfortable moving freely through the school buildings, to name a few.


Pronounced “now”, Nao is a programmable, social robot and is the only autonomous robot on our list. Arguably the most successful commercial robot so far, there are over 5,000 Naos operating across the world.

It replaced Sony's AIBO robot in the niche, and elite robot sporting event known as The Standard Platform League, it is also being tested by Mitsubishi as a replacement for customer service agents in its banks. In 2015, the robot was also used to develop “autobiographical” programs used to train ISS crews.

The manufacturers of Nao have developed specific programs, apps and web portals to assist special education, where Nao plays the role of a teaching assistant where together with the teacher they engage the class in a wide range of lessons, games and activities that teach and model turn taking, guessing emotions, communication, following instruction etc. Nao is highly adaptive, and teachers can change lessons and tasks based on each child’s learning goals, motivators, internal states and personality.

At $9,000 Nao is again an expensive tool, and will prohibit many under-resourced institutions and schools from using him.

A bright future ahead?

Commentators caution against seeing robots as a panacea to autism therapy, and point to the rudimentary emotions currently able to be imitated or learned about — happiness, sadness, anger — whereas complex emotional concepts such as empathy are far harder to understand for ADS students.

However, the majority of studies available indicate that robot-assisted therapy and teaching is having a marked and positive impact on the everyday lives of ADS children and their families.

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