Here at MVHS there are students with special needs. Could AI help them?

Here at MVHS there are students with special needs and studies have shown that AI can help. According to the CDC, there has been a rise in the number of children diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). This growth has sparked an increase in research on how to accurately diagnose children with ASD as well as how to help them. Robots can play a huge role in helping special needs students to communicate and socialize. Special needs students work with robots “in a way that they don’t [with] puppets or pet therapies, or to many of the other kinds of things that we’ve tried,” Yale University Professor Brian Scassellati told the New York Times.

After the spark in research and innovation in this sector of science, theories about robots in classrooms started to arise. There are new tools being integrated with AI systems such as software that can aid deaf students by providing them with a simple yet exciting experience as well as software that can determine ways to accurately identify people with dyslexia.

One struggle for students with special needs is social awareness. Such students commonly find it hard to read and fully understand human facial expressions.

MVHS’ special education department lead, Ruth Seyer, shares her opinion on social interaction and AI for students with special needs. “They would hold the expression to allow the student to be successful and able to figure out what was going on, or get some feedback about how they were feeling,” Seyer said when asked about a social interaction that AI could help special needs students in. She continued by talking about how facial expressions move too fast for students to process or understand. She says using AI could help students not feel judged when presented with facial expressions that passed too fast or feel like they did not “get it.” “And so I’ve seen the beginnings of AI used for I’m gonna say social skills per se, but social awareness, understanding of nonverbal communication, and then allowing a third party entity to help support…what certain facial expressions mean,”Seyer said.

Brian Scassellati and his colleagues made a robot named Jibo that could play a choice of six games with a group of special needs children and would adjust the games difficulty based on the performance of the children.

“We never want to encourage kids to just respond to the technology; that doesn’t do them any good,” Scassellati says to the New York Times. The Research and Development was only done to help children with special needs be socially aware and not necessarily decrease human interaction.

Research shows that special needs students are inclined to interact with screens or robots unlike other commonly found treatments and teachers also think along the same lines. 

“I think that with each new generation, technology gets embedded in our society and in everything that we do, that there is probably a higher comfort level with doing things online and doing things like interacting with the screen more now than there ever was before,” Seyer said. 

Brian Scassellati, a Yale University Professor, shares Seyer’s opinion that an AI system for a short amount of time could be beneficial for the student to open up a little more than they would normally, making socializing much easier. “That may be because robots seem humanlike but are nonjudgmental” Scassellati said to the New York Times.

There are many apps and companies that are designed to help autistic children be socially aware and generally have an appropriate reaction to a situation. Many of these apps are designed by doctors and psychologists that know how to help special needs children. These innovations could create resources that cost less than behavioral specialists and therapists. AI could also have the opportunity to make new groundbreaking progress in what the special needs students are taught. Satire, symbolism and sarcasm can cause special needs students to struggle to hold a conversation. AI can recognize such occasions and tell the student what the literal meaning is and show the student the true meaning based on tone and facial expressions. 

There are people who like the idea of robots in the classroom and there are people who do not. 

Pashmeena Vyas, mother of a special needs student says, “I am cautiously optimistic about having robots in the classroom because I am not sure it would work significantly. It could probably assist with better social understanding and could help with reminders and corrections when required. ”I hope it does not make her less social as AI is adding another screen to the plethora of devices being used in the classroom already.” 

Structure is extremely important when working with such a delicate situation. The amount of time a student would spend with the robot would have to be enough to benefit from using the machine and not too much that the student gets attached to it.

Ultimately, the use of technology needs to be balanced.

Lisa McCahill, who teaches special education at MVHS shares her opinion,“The true test is for them to transfer those skills to [a] natural person,” McCahill said. AI could learn what to say and what to expect but if the use of AI in classrooms is not perfect it defeats the purpose of having it there. AI could and should be used in classrooms as a type of textbook for quick reading. “I wouldn’t say that it would become a focal piece,” Seyer says, referring to the fact that AI should not replace teachers entirely. 

AI might just be the missing link all these years. There is still a lot more Research and Development to be done in this section of science. Technology is still expanding and advancing. Soon, having AI in a classroom won’t seem like a far-fetched idea.

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