It used to be difficult for Elgin Middle School seventh-grader Abigail Wise to stay focused during some of her lessons in the classroom.
“Sometimes self-soothing and calming was a challenge,” Dr. Shannon Darst, itinerant teacher of students with visual impairments, said.
However, after more than a year of using Milo, a robot designed to help students with autism spectrum disorder by Texas-based company RoboKind, Wise is now engaged and attentive. The curriculum when working with Milo deals with teaching students social skills.
“She knows how to greet,” Darst said. “She knows how to say goodbye.”
Creators of Milo say students respond to Milo because of the robot’s facial expressions. Research from the Callier Center for Communication Disorders shows “individuals with autism start talking to the robots when they don’t talk to other people.”
“We are always participating in studies, so right now we have studies going on in about 25 different universities and we are looking at the research that’s coming out of that to figure out, how can we use this to improve the curriculum, expand the curriculum and make what we’re doing work better,” Richard Margolin, chief technology officer, said.
Milo can provide something not all humans can, Darst says.
“He can repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and he never gets frustrated,” she said. “[Students] will feel a teacher’s frustration. They will feel like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve done this 100 times. Let’s just get it.’ — that desperation almost that we just want our kids to succeed. They know they can depend on how Milo’s never going to get frustrated. We’re never going to get cut off in the middle of a lesson.”
According to numbers from the U.S Department of Education, more than 500,000 children in the country who have autism are currently getting services at school for their learning disabilities. More than 51,000 are in Texas.
Darst said Milo has transformed learning for students like Wise within Elgin ISD’s elementary and middle schools. Wise knows how to self-advocate now.
“We can work on self-soothing,” she said. “We can work on calming down by ourselves. We can work on these soft skills that they might need when they’re grown up, wanting to get jobs and wanting to have roommates.”
House Bill 21, passed during the special session, set aside grant programs for districts and charter schools that provide services to students with autism and dyslexia. Grant funds will be awarded beginning in the 2018-19 school year. $10 million has been set aside for the autism grant program, with another $10 million targeted to help students with dyslexia.