The Robot Club: Robots as Agents to Improve the Social Skills of Young People on the Autistic Spectrum
Blank, Sarah T
To better understand the difficulties and strengths associated with both high and low functioning individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), the hyper-systemising theory has been proposed by Baron-Cohen and colleagues. It explains the social and communication difficulties in autism and Asperger syndrome (AS) by reference to delays and deficits in empathy, whilst explaining the areas of strength by reference to intact or even superior skill in systemising (Baron-Cohen, 2002). The evidence for hypersystemising alongside hypo-empathising in autism, suggests a corresponding desire to systemise the social world. Based on this theory, the use of technology in supporting the development of social and communication skills in children with an ASD is discussed. Technology and computers rely on strict, predictable systems made up of sets of rules that can be programmed, determined and understood. Use of such technology to assist in the development of social skills in an individual with an ASD utilises an existing area of strength and engages a person in an often existing area of interest and/or obsession. This thesis describes an exploratory study using non-humanoid robots with a group of young people with either high-functioning autism (HFA) or AS, which aimed to use robots as a focus of shared attention in a more naturally occurring and systemisable environment; thus promoting more implicit learning of social skills for this clinical group. Ten children attended the ‘robot club’ for eight sessions enabling a design using a series of single case studies pooled together for multiple and individual base line comparisons. The results indicate improvements as rated by parents and the young people themselves (although not by teachers), with some evidence of statistical and clinically significant changes, for example, in communication skills specifically and with general difficulties associated with autism. The results were found to be affected by total number of sessions attended, but not by age or academic functioning. Possible implications of the findings are presented in line with theory and for clinical practise. Limitations of the study are discussed and suggestions for future research made.