They smile, their eyes blink, their arms move expressively and most of all their patience is endless and they never tire during the day working with students with autism.

They are robots programmed by Movia Robotics, a Bristol, Conn. firm creating something akin to a human able to reach children with autism spectrum disorder.

“They’re very consistent, very patient, very predictable,” said Timothy Gifford, president and chief scientist of the firm. “They don’t sigh or yawn that a child might misinterpret.”

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Movia Robotics, begun in 2010, has so far programmed 350 robots — made elsewhere and repurposed at the company’s offices in an ornate 19th century house in Bristol’s Federal Hill neighborhood — and sold to schools, homes and most recently, hospitals.

Programming a robot is a “fascinating problem” as its developers make the robot react, show expression, make gestures and interact with youngsters, he said. The challenge is to design a robot that can react and “still meet the child where the child is at and then bring the child back to the task at hand,” he said.

A robot can achieve this by changing what it’s doing, giving a youngster more prompts or de-escalating a behavior with breathing exercises or other actions, Gifford said.

Still, he said, a robot is a tool used by a teacher or therapist and is not fully autonomous. It will not replace adults in the classroom.

About one of six children between the ages of 3 and 17, or about 17%, are diagnosed with a developmental disability, as reported by parents, during a study period of 2009-2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These included spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, blindness, cerebral palsy and other conditions.

A 2018 study found that a robot encouraged engagement with children, adapted activities to the child’s past performance, modeled positive social skills and helped improve social skills.

A market is developing for robotics designed to work with children with developmental disabilities. LuxAI in Luxembourg, for example, has a humanoid social robot for human artificial intelligence research and teaching and a robot for autism and other special needs education.

Those with autism spectrum disorder often have problems with social communication and interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. They also may have different ways of learning, moving or paying attention.

One review of studies of interactive robots said research offers reasons to use robots with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. For example, those with ASD show strengths in understanding objects and relative weaknesses with social prompts. They are more responsive to comments using technology rather than from a person and are more interested in treatment when it involves an electronic or robotic component.

Gifford said youngsters make a connection with the robots they see as a “social entity.” They make eye contact, practice raising their hands, match colors and shapes and respond to movement. The robots are “absolutely dependable, predictable and reliable,” Gifford said.

Movia Robotics sells five models, with robots selling for about $2,000 each and available with upgrades.

The company is looking to expand with help from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. military. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., hosted recently by Gifford on a tour of Movia Robotics’ offices, said the federal agencies can do more to become customers. “There’s huge potential for this,” he said.

Blumenthal and a robot communicated with each other, with the small table-top robot calling him “Rich,” an unaccustomed name for Connecticut’s senior Democratic senator. One possible source for federal funding to purchase robots can be the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes funding for military education, said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Barry Simon, chief executive officer of Oak Hill, a private provider of special education, said parents support the use of robotics.

“All they have is hope,” he said. “They’re almost willing to try anything.”

His program, which operates at several schools and other sites in Connecticut, uses three robots and he wants to buy seven more. Ultimately, the teacher is in control, but the robot is a successful aide because children struggling with social interaction don’t have to look it in the eye or feel they’re being judged.

“The reason it works so well is because the robot is agnostic to emotional stuff working with the child,” Simon said.

Gifford said his “broad and disparate” background is key to designing robotics that interact with children with autism. A former social robotics researcher at the University of Connecticut, he said he has experience in psychology, computer science, software engineering and virtual reality and building animated characters.

Robotics will eventually be used in the classroom for the general population, but the need now is to work with children with autism, Gifford said.

“If you put a robot in front of a child, they’re going to pay attention,” he said. “But for how long? And what’s the benefit of that interaction? We want that engagement to be long term.”

© 2022 Hartford Courant
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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