Friendly gestures from robots inspire autistic children in Hong Kong

Chinese University programme has reduced the challenging behaviour of students, particularly relating to anger and mood swings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2016, 6:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2016, 7:06pm

A student with autism can’t take his eyes off a robot as it looks around in wonder, puts its hand on its hips and rubs its tummy.

And when the childlike robot asks which gesture expresses anger, the student confidently picks out the right one.

This isn’t just fun and games, Lam Wai-lok, currently in year five, is learning hand gestures crucial for everyday communication, and part of a programme that employs “social robots” to improve the ability of autistic schoolchildren to recognise and use such gestures, the first of its kind in Hong Kong.

Benefitting from the robots’ simple but friendly faces, autistic children are able to learn far more effectively than from teachers. After two fun weeks, the children, aged six to 12 were able to produce almost twice the number of correct gestures.

Lam also said the gestures reduced the challenging behaviour of children, such as anger and mood swings. For example, one boy who would repeatedly smack his forehead when things got too loud, learned to communicate “noisy” by covering his ears with his hands.

“Autistic children are more interested in robots than humans,” said Professor Catherine So Wing-chee from Chinese University, who led the programme.

Keung Hei-man, 14, told how he learned to wave when greeting others and rub his tummy when hungry. As a result of the programme, children can express themselves at school and at home.

A 2013 study showed 13.22 per cent of Hong Kong school-age children and adolescents with special needs have autism.

So hopes the robots, which cost HK$85,000 each, will assist 30-50 more children.

Lam Ka-yee, a senior teacher at Hong Chi Morninghill School, Tsui Lam, where the programme was conducted, believes the robots will help autistic children enter the adult world.