Pepper the robot joins school to support children with autism


Pepper, the friendly humanoid robot from SoftBank Robotics, is lending a helping hand to pupils at a special needs school in Somerset, as part of a project led by researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Currently based at The Mendip School near Shepton Mallet, the approachable-looking robot is supporting pupils with autism aged 12 to 19 with their wellbeing and emotions over a three-week period.

Programmed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Pepper can take part in a range of social and physical activities with children, such as story-telling, dancing and relaxation techniques designed to help such pupils manage their emotions and wellbeing. Many children with autism can have difficulty regulating their emotions and require calming and stimulation to help them engage with school-based activities.

According to the National Autistic Society, approximately one in 68 people are on the autism spectrum and there are approximately 700,000 impacted by autism in the UK. While autism impacts everyone differently, some of the most common challenges include difficulty in communicating; understanding how others feel; anxiety in unfamiliar situations, and finding stimuli like loud noises overwhelming and stressful.

Pupils and teachers at the school co-designed the activities with the robot. The project – which has utilised the expertise of UWE Bristol researchers from the fields of robotics, education and architecture – is investigating where, when and how the robot can best support pupils with autism and teachers in a school setting.

“Using robots to support autistic children is not entirely new. However, while previous research has focused on teaching skills to children, our autistic participants told us this is not what they actually need,” said Dr Severin Lemaignan, an associate professor in Social Robotics. “Our approach focuses instead on wellbeing and child-led interactions. Our robot lives in the school’s corridors: Pepper engages with the children on their terms.”

Once a child engages with Pepper, the robot’s interface asks the child how they are feeling – whether that be sad, happy or angry – and responds with appropriate activities such as tai chi, jokes and stories that support the child’s current mood and emotions.

Dr Nigel Newbutt, a senior lecturer in Digital Education said the team envisaged schools may well use the robot in a classroom. After conducting focus groups with the pupils and their teachers, the researchers found they wanted to engage with the robot in a more social and informal way, e.g. in the corridors, groups room and play areas.

“We found the focus groups to be immensely helpful to inform our project and in fact guide it,” he added. “By working with pupils and teachers we were able to place their voices centrally and co-design what Pepper would do in their school.”

Assistant headteacher at the Mendip School, Iian Conley, said: “Since Pepper arrived at the school there has been a lot of dancing and the children have also really enjoyed the robot’s jokes. One of the great things we’ve seen already is children gathering in groups to engage with Pepper.

“Children who wouldn’t normally socially interact with others are now choosing to interact with their peers. It’s great to see students willing to communicate with the robot where they might struggle with adults and children and to see them opening up their friendship groups.”

Socially intelligent robots like Pepper cost approximately £20,000 each, but researchers and school leaders believe they could be a worthwhile investment in the future. Studies have already shown that people with autism can enjoy interacting with a robot partner and that robots can be effective in helping autistic children to develop their social, communication and fine motor skills.

By conducting this research project, the team at UWE Bristol also hopes to gather greater evidence of the benefits of robot technology in a school setting with the hope that other schools can consider engaging with the technology in the future.

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