Options Autism hail Roger the robot for boosting pupils' social skills

Philippa Whipp - a headteacher who believes we are only just beginning to discover the potential innovative educational technologies such as AI can offer to autistic learners - says it’s time to embrace cutting edge ed-tech.

Her school, Acorn Park independent school in Norfolk is backed by Options Autism, which has schools and services across the country to help children and young people with additional needs.Phillippa Whipp, headteacher at Acorn Park School

She says: "With innovation and creativity at the heart of Option Autism’s continual progression and development of provision for pupils and in extending the expertise of staff, we were excited to take part in the pilot study to research the benefits of introducing QTrobot by LuxAI, into our schools. It gave us the opportunity to explore the potential of this cutting-edge technology to enhance learning and support the development of socially empowering life skills.

"QTrobot is an expressive social robot designed as an assistive tool for teachers and therapists alike, to support autistic children and young people. The robot offers pupils engagement opportunities and interactions - speech, facial expressions, and movements - that are predictable, consistent, and non-judgemental. QTrobot creates a third party in the learning experience, celebrating correct responses and guiding the children through verbal and visual prompts.

"It often takes lots of time and planning to introduce a new piece of kit, so we were very happy to discover that we literally just needed to take QTrobot out of the box and turn it on, and simply connect two tablets – one for the learner, one for the teacher. The teacher controls the input to the robot, while prompts for a visual or verbal response appear on the learner’s tablet, after which it returns to a blank screen. It is extremely simple and intuitive to operate, so it can be used by non-specialists. Alongside various pre-set routines and games, easily accessible programming tools allow new content to be built. This opens up many more possibilities, such as bespoke tasks and responses tailored to a child’s needs and based upon specific progressive learning expectations for that individual.

"Our pupils are very comfortable interacting with technology. Gaming, for example, offers a predictable, consistent environment – if they are unsuccessful in a gaming situation, they simply start the game again - QTrobot offers a similar non-judgemental learning experience.

"Initially, QTrobot – or ‘Roger’ as he is now called, stayed in my office – a non-threatening introduction for our pupils. We began with the simplest functionality - programmable speech. It soon became apparent that even our older pupils, whom we had assumed would not be interested, decided Roger was ‘cool’ enough to acknowledge with a wave. This ‘natural’ introduction allowed the pupils to see that Roger was not authoritarian in any way, and did not place demands on those interacting with him. There were also ‘silly moments’ when Roger would say something funny, and the children became very relaxed towards him.

"Staff began requesting classroom visits from Roger, he rapidly became a regular part of everyday, and this revealed some unanticipated benefits for our teaching staff. They observed his deliberate, precise teaching style, maintaining consistently positive interactions, and the progress children made. When children responded incorrectly to questions, Roger remained non-judgemental and placed no demands upon them, he provided them with scaffolding and opportunities to rethink and try again, and if they were unsuccessful after several attempts he simply modelled the correct response.

"It was like coaching by ‘osmosis’, as staff recognised Roger’s impact on the children. Asking and responding to questions and answers in this way, is more conducive to learning for autistic pupils and avoids feelings of frustration or ‘failure’. Roger has been very successful connecting with all our pupils - our non-verbal children also respond positively to him, mirroring his movements.

"In the future, we are considering using Roger to help pupil’s transition into school, especially for children who have been out of school for prolonged periods of time - adapting to a new environment and everything that that entails can be daunting. Roger would act as a bridging tool between home and school, explaining daily expectations and delivering messages in a non-directive, predictable way, and providing assurance and support.

"Working with the development team at LuxAI, it’s very apparent that their focus is on cognitive impact rather than clever animatronics. In fact, QTrobot’s lack of ‘human-ness’ is an asset. There are no confusing gestures or facial expressions – a simple wave or smile, one that our pupils become accustomed to – means they can read those cues and focus on their learning, rather than trying to decode behaviours.

"We entered the pilot with open-minds, we had no pre-set targets and Roger has surpassed our initial expectations. We are still discovering his potential, but he’ll never take the place of a teacher or therapist. However, he’s an incredibly useful piece of tech and is providing an innovative approach to enhancing our pupils’ learning, and supporting the development of socially empowering life skills."

By Philippa Whipp, Head of School, Acorn Park School, Norfolk - an independent specialist school catering for pupils aged 5-19 with autism and associated conditions, part of Options Autism.