December 01, 2015      

Parents and caregivers of children with autism and other special needs often struggle to communicate and interact with their kids. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a striking lack of interest and ability to interact, limited ability to communicate, and show repetitive behaviors and distress when confronted with change. For most of us, it is almost impossible to imagine what it must be like not to be able to decode body language, facial expressions or the importance of personal space.

Blue Frog Robotics, creator of Buddy the personal robot, is currently collaborating with Auticiel to integrate apps that will help children with ASD or other special needs learn to communicate, interact with others, and be more autonomous. Apps are the perfect tools: intuitive, help focus, playful, fun and mobile. Auticiel is a company founded by software professionals from the education sector with a unique expertise in software development for people with special needs. The startup apps help 60,000 users learn and progress in France and Canada.

Prior to the birth of Buddy, there have been a few social robots dedicated to helping children with special needs. Some universities have tested these robots to enhance social interaction skills and they have demonstrated that through role-playing and other scenarios, children with ASD can learn social interaction skills such as reading feelings and communication. The goal is to get the children to step out of their comfort zone. Working with a robot that responds and reacts, motivates them to achieve the goal and not disappoint the companion. This is something inanimate objects, such as computers or tablets cannot achieve.

Developing Strong Bonds

Blue Frog has tested Buddy with children with ASD and the results have been nothing short of amazing. When Buddy first enters the room the children are excited, as he is something they have never seen before. Buddy arouses their curiosity and they gather around him to play. Immediately, a strong bond develops between the children and Buddy, who plays games, tells stories and does small exercises with them. And one of the best things about Buddy; he has infinite patience, and will do things over and over, never getting upset or tired.

Buddy’s design was inspired by Wall-E, R2D2 and babies. We look at what went into the companion robot’s personality and how he engages with families.

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In addition to the six existing Auticiel tablet apps that will be integrated to Buddy, Auticiel and Blue Frog will collaborate to develop an app to help understand the concept of time through a calendar and tasks feature. With this app, Buddy will:

1. Remind children and prepare a time schedule

2. Provide assistance to perform the steps required to complete a task

3. Display the passing of time though visual timers

4. Motivate and congratulate once done through fun animations

Here is one example of how students with ASD might work with Buddy: Buddy says, “It is time to go eat, you have to wash your hands now.” He then displays a video on his face showing how to wash hands step-by-step, with timers and a funny animation. Once the task is completed, Buddy dances and congratulates the child. Plans, video, timers and pictures are completely customizable – for instance they can use photos of a comfortable environment (home, school, etc.).

As part of the app, customers will receive a free, one-year subscription to the Auticiel Cloud services, which will monitor and track the use of the Calendar and Tasks application through statistics and deliver exclusive, new content.

Parents and Teachers Marvel at the Progress their Kids are Making Thanks to Buddy

“The Blue Frog Robotics Team is not only proud to see its work rewarded by the laughs of the children, but also to see the improvement in the lives of these kids,” said Blue Frog CEO Rodolphe Hasselvander. “Most children with autism struggle with social interaction. With Buddy, we want to help them integrate with others by learning how to communicate.”

Blue Frog and Auticiel are working with an autism institute to develop a special Buddy package dedicated to children with special needs. That package was offered during its Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $617,000, and will also be available for purchase at a later date.

Blue Frog selected Auticiel as its partner because of its deep experience in working with special needs children. All of the company’s apps are created and tested in partnership with people with cognitive impairments, their families and caregivers. Development is overseen by a committee of medical and social care professionals including neuropsychologists, psychologists, speech therapists and special-needs teachers.

“Over the past five years, we have seen how crucial new technologies are in helping people with autism to be better integrated in our society. For the first time, they can learn, play and interact thanks to specific apps implemented in technologies that everybody uses: tablets, smartphones … and soon robots,” said Sarah Cherruault-Anouge, CEO of Auticiel. “Robots like Buddy can provoke interactions and stimulate the child with a reassuring neutral attitude. It is an essential new tool for us, considering that narrow interest fields and communication troubles are common consequences of autism.”