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Robot helps autistic students at McCarthy Teszler bridge communication barriers

Herald-Journal - 4/23/2017

April 23--Autism specialists at the McCarthy Teszler School are flipping the stereotype of a child who's too wrapped up in technology to talk to other people.

Elena Ghionis, Kylie McKinney and Kim Speer have been working with a robot named Milo to get nonverbal students with autism spectrum disorders to better communicate and identify emotions in other people.

"He teaches those kids emotional recognition, social skills and communication skills," Ghinois said. "For many years, we were looking for any kind of curriculum that could include those three pieces."

Milo helps the students improve their communication with teachers, family members and friends, a major milestone for many autistic children.

Ghionis said many of the students who have worked with the robot have an easier time interacting with devices like smartphones or iPads.

"We were looking for some kind of technology which can push those kids to communicate with us and help them learn social regulation techniques," she said.

Spartanburg School District 7's participation in the League of Innovative Schools helped McCarthy Teszler get Milo, Speer said.

McCarthy Teszler is the first school in the state to use the robot.

Milo is used during individualized therapy sessions, not in full classrooms. Speer said that allows Milo to be customized to each child's functioning level.

If a student has problems controlling their emotions, the robot leads them through "calm down" modules, using techniques like counting to 10 or squeezing a stress ball to relax.

"The kids will go, 'He knew I was upset? Oh, OK,' and calm down," Speer said.

Thanks to teacher-controlled programs on an iPad, Milo is predictable in the way he reacts to students. McKinney said the robot interacts with students on a level that keeps them comfortable while helping them recognize emotional cues they may not otherwise notice.

"The best way to think about Milo is as a bridge between our world and their world," McKinney said. "They're sometimes so entranced in technology, but Milo draws their attention up to him."

The robot helped Josh Jackson, a fifth-grader at McCarthy Teszler, learn to recognize emotions in others and regulate his own.

Carlos and Chris Pruitt, twin 8-year-olds at McCarthy Teszler, began communicating after a year of working with Milo, Ghionis said. She said the twins were 100 percent nonverbal, but now can talk in a limited capacity and have improved at reading and spelling.

A case study done at the school with Milo and autistic students found that eight of 17 students using the robot showed improvement on several autism-specific testing scales.

Ghionis said Milo has helped students recognize and convey their emotions; apply skills and methods to calm down during stressful situations; and engage in appropriate, two-sided conversations.

Milo breaks down emotion brick by brick, in ways most people take for granted, McKinney said. She said happy or sad are never taught, they're just feelings and concepts most children learn as they grow up.

"Milo says, 'When you're happy, the sides of your mouth go up and your eyebrows raise,'" she said. "With children with autism, they're literal thinkers. With them being so literal, they'll hear, 'the sides of your mouth go up,' and they'll think, 'oh, happy.'"

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(c)2017 the Spartanburg Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.)

Visit the Spartanburg Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.) at www.GoUpstate.com

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