‘They understand me.’ Beaufort Co. schools use new technology for students with autism

·3 min read

Amid toying with Legos, but after playground time, students with autism at Okatie Elementary School’s Camp BLAST were using a robot in the classroom to help with social and behavioral skills.

“My favorite thing about them is they use all five ways people communicate to teach students,” said Isaac Pepin, a 7th-grade student with autism at River Ridge Academy.

Isaac is one of at least 10 students that attended the two-week Camp BLAST, Behavior, Language, and Sensory/Social Transition, at Okatie Elementary School using robots to help them improve social and behavioral skills. Milo and Veda are two of the robots from RoboKind, a Texas-based company creating realistic robots that mirror human facial expressions. Isaac, a future engineer, said he is most interested in how the robots work.

“It’s a new evolution of learning and I still don’t know the engineering behind it,” he said. “That style of engineering can be pretty complex.”

Both robots can walk, talk and dance. During their 10-minute lessons with students, they delve into concepts such as what to do at a birthday party, said Maegan Mallon, a teacher at Bluffton Elementary School.

“Some of my kids use more words with Milo or Veda than they do with me,” Mallon said. “Some parents have noticed a difference; they’re using more words at home.”

At least 40% of people with autism are nonverbal, according to statistics from Autism Speaks, an autism research organization. With the robots, students are learning to communicate better, what to do when there’s a lull in conversation and how to build better connections, she said.

“A lot of kiddos with autism will ... see her mouth and see her smile and think, ‘OK, I have to smile,’” Mallon said. “A lot of it is, ‘do what I do.’”

‘They understand me’

One of the lessons, for example, Mallon said, showed a child interacting with another person and not making eye contact. After the video shows that, Milo or Veda will ask students what the child could have done better in that instance.

“We’re still learning a lot about how autism brains work,” Mallon said. “It definitely depends on the kids. Some of it has been a supplement to speech therapy at school, too.”

The robots were first introduced about three years ago, but when schools closed as a result of the pandemic, the program was put on hold until students could get back to school, said Juliet White, a student services officer with the school district.

“I’m excited about it growing next year,” White said. “We have three right now and by August, we’ll have six Milos. Each school will have a Milo or a Veda.”

After the use of Milo and Veda in classrooms, teachers and parents are seeing students who have used the robots interact with one another and take initiative they ordinarily wouldn’t have. Especially in the older students who are acting as “peer buddies” to help guide the younger ones, according to Ginger Abbott, an autism specialist with the school district.

“It’s just happening naturally, they’re taking on the lead role in decompressing a student who has been upset,” Abbott said. “Conversations are just blasting in there. In school, they don’t really have anyone to talk to; people don’t understand them or they don’t have patience for them.”

Isaac, she said, walked out of one of his first days at the camp telling his parents that he was so happy to be someplace where “they understand me.”

When he got home from one of his first days at camp, Isaac Pepin, a 7th-grader at River Ridge Academy, told his parents he was grateful to be at a camp where people understood him, according to Beaufort County School District Autism Specialist, Ginger Abbott.
When he got home from one of his first days at camp, Isaac Pepin, a 7th-grader at River Ridge Academy, told his parents he was grateful to be at a camp where people understood him, according to Beaufort County School District Autism Specialist, Ginger Abbott.