The fuzzy puppets and the music on the boombox all were pretty typical stuff for a grade school music program, but Joshua Greenlee and Matthew Phillips had an unusual audience for their rehearsal this week at the Madonna School.
Her name is Evvie — Evvie Roboto. And she is, indeed, a robot, 2-feet-plus tall and with flashing eyes, motor-driven joints and a Wi-Fi connection to a nearby human-operated laptop.
Evvie is programmed to respond like a human, handing out fist bumps and high- fives for a job well done. “Stupendous,” she said after the boys wrapped up with a puppet bow.
But there's a difference. Evvie's responses come with none of the facial expressions, vocal inflections and hand gestures that humans throw out with abandon. While most people can sift and read such signals with relative ease, they can overwhelm people with autism.
So the Madonna School, a faith-based school for special-needs students, has partnered with researchers at the University of Notre Dame to try to determine whether Evvie and robots like her can help children on the autism spectrum cut through the noise.
“The student can interact with the robot more comfortably than you or me,” said Jay Dunlap, president of the school near 72nd Street and Redick Avenue. “The idea is you teach social skills using the robot, and then you translate that to human interactions.”
Joshua Diehl, an assistant professor of psychology, said the Notre Dame researchers have focused on integrating robots into a behavioral therapy program that involves teaching autistic children the skills they need to interact with others.
Work with autism and robots at several other universities in the United States and the United Kingdom has focused more on technology development.
The therapy involves a lot of repetition, Diehl said. So the intent was to make it fun and motivational, as well as simpler and, for the students, less threatening. The researchers wanted to know whether the robots would add to the therapy and worked initially with a local autism center. They have just finished collecting data, he said, and are excited about the results so far.
The next step, he said, is to see how it works in the real world — hence the partnerships with Madonna and a center in Pennsylvania. The researchers, knowing that autism comes with a spectrum of abilities and needs for support, also are trying to figure out which kids the approach is most likely to help so they can provide guidance to families.
How Dunlap and Diehl — and Madonna and Notre Dame — connected in the first place comes with its own story.
Dunlap is a Notre Dame alumnus. In September 2010, while watching a Fighting Irish football game on TV, he caught one of those ads featuring research and academic programs that universities include during the game telecast. The ad featured the robot research.
Dunlap noted Diehl's name and contacted him. Diehl's lab wasn't ready to expand its work. Dunlap made contact again in 2011 and got the green light to proceed.
Dunlap applied for a grant from the Atlanta-based Arby's Foundation. The school long has had ties with local Arby's franchisees, including the restaurants hosting the school's annual golf benefit. The foundation covered the entire $23,500 cost for the French-made robot and a construction-trailer-turned-observation lab, topping the $20,000 Dunlap had sought.
Dunlap and two faculty members — music therapist Mary Lynn Bennett and Cathy Hirchert, a speech pathologist — traveled to Notre Dame in December to train.
For now they're getting students used to Evvie. Change can be difficult for autistic students. They started with a naming contest. Evvie is for Sister Mary Evangeline Randolph, who founded the school in 1960. They'll begin actual research in the fall.
Diehl said the Madonna staff has some “neat ideas” for using the robot with music and speech therapy. “We're really excited about these novel approaches,” he said.
He's also been impressed with Dunlap's dedication and enthusiasm. “It was a match made in heaven, so to speak,” Diehl said.
Dunlap recognizes that autism is on the rise. One in 88 children now is diagnosed with the disorder. “We're offering our students a great opportunity,” he said, “but we're also part of something that could have a larger impact.”
For now, Evvie appears to be settling in just fine.
When Dunlap emerged from the school building to carry Evvie to the trailer, Sylvianna Shonk, 8, spotted her immediately and followed along. She and other students played Simon Says, following the robot as she issued commands.
Bennett, the music therapist, noted that Matthew, 12, and Joshua, 14, who are on the autism spectrum, both interacted more with Evvie than they have in previous encounters. Matthew, who withdrew the first time he met her, waved and talked to the robot before and after the boys' rehearsal. He also made “eye contact” with her.
“It is really fun seeing the kids' reactions,” she said.
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