ASK NAO Initiative to revolutionize special education for autistic children

ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS, the creator of the NAO humanoid robot, has launched the ASK NAO Initiative, where ASK stands for Autism Solution for Kids. With the help of NAO, the company aims to help improve special-education teaching by stimulating social interaction through play and allowing users greater autonomy.

Dr Olivier Joubert (Neuropsychology Ph.D), the Autism Business Unit Manager at ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS, explains, "Most children on the autistic spectrum are naturally attracted to technology. Thanks to its humanoid shape, NAO acts as the perfect bridge between the world of technology and that of humans. We have designed educational games to work on verbal and non-verbal communication, emotion recognition, mimicry, as well as academic foundations."

The ASK NAO Initiative (where ASK stands for Autism Solution for Kids) is an innovative approach for specialised teaching professionals involving humanoid robot NAO. This Initiative aims to improve specialised education, particularly concerning children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Through the ASK NAO Initiative, ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS intends to make it fun for children to learn, while facilitating the work of teachers in the classroom. NAO is naturally accepted by the children and uses play to stimulate social interaction, while working to improve children's autonomy.

Dr Joubert continues, "Not only does NAO unlock skills from within the children, it can also, above all, give them self-confidence. Following a year of testing, and given the positive feedback we got from our beta-test schools in the UK and the US, as well as the encouragement we received from the autism community, we made the decision to launch the ASK NAO Initiative so that all specialised schools could benefit from it."

The NAO applications, developed by ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS in collaboration with teachers, are inspired from behavioural methods, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA); Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped Children (TEACCH); Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS); Social-Communication, Emotional-Regulation, and Transactional Support (SCERTS); and, finally, the Denver Model. These NAO applications are intended to develop the children's social skills and learning abilities, through encouragement and reward.

The ASK NAO Initiative is supported by educators specialised in autism and by the children's parents, who consider NAO to be a technological breakthrough specifically designed to meet the requirements of personalised educational support.

Sarah Quickenden, a teacher at Topcliffe School, in Birmingham (England), explains, "You're in a classroom, day in and day out, trying desperately to help a child achieve a goal, not only using conventional methods. When you have technology as sophisticated as NAO, the kids just seem to succeed. It is a very, very different kettle of fish with them: [NAO is not] judging them, therefore, they feel comfortable and their self-esteem rises. This has a huge impact, not only when getting the child to do the activities that NAO has set them, but also in other aspects of their life."

The ASK NAO Initiative also provides teachers with a friendly online interface that meets the specific needs of specialised teaching in schools. This interface allows for the exchange of information between teachers and parents in order for both parties to gain a better understanding of the children. Children's progress is automatically recorded and, thanks to NAO's adaptable educational content, new exercises can be created.

NAO, which has also been developed by ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS, is a 58cm-tall interactive humanoid robot with a sensor network that includes cameras, microphones and pressure sensors, as well as a voice synthesiser and two high-fidelity speakers. With 3,500 units sold worldwide, NAO is currently the most widely used humanoid robot in education and research. Combining sophisticated embedded software with adaptable educational content, NAO is fully programmable, interactive and autonomous.

It is expected that, in the future, NAO will become a companion robot for ordinary people.

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