Researchers from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are investigating how socially intelligent robots can be used in schools to support young autistic people.

Unlike previous research in this field, which has focused mainly on testing robots with autistic people within laboratories and controlled settings, the UWE Bristol study will place and evaluate a socially intelligent robot in a special needs school during term time.

The research project, which involves academics from the fields of education, robotics and architecture, will begin in November with the placement of the robot in classrooms scheduled for Spring 2021.

Researchers will work closely with pupils and teachers at a special needs school in Somerset to design the project and ensure the robot addresses their needs. Over the course of two months, the robot will be placed in various classes at the school where it will be operated by a member of the research team.

The robot will take part in regular teaching as well as interacting with children to support the teacher’s activities. This will give researchers the opportunity to observe and learn how robots can be best used by schools to engage pupils, and their teachers, in social and learning opportunities. Cleaning and hygiene measures will also be in place throughout the project to ensure the robot is COVID-secure.

The socially intelligent robot, known as Pepper, is capable of joining in a range of simple social and physical activities with children, such as story-telling, games and informal chats. Programmed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, its behaviours and commands will focus on improving meaningful social interventions which many autistic children struggle with, such as social communication skills, joint attention (the shared focus of two individuals on an object) and exercising.

Research has already shown that people with autism can often perform better with a robot partner compared to a human partner, and that robots can be effective in helping children with autism to develop their social, communication and fine motor skills.

Senior Researcher in Digital Education, Dr Nigel Newbutt, along with researchers from Architecture and the Bristol Robotics Lab who are working on the UWE Bristol project, said: ‘‘This project is particularly exciting as it is one of the few studies which places a robot in real classrooms and we are putting the pupil and teacher experience at the centre of the research. All of our work will be guided and shaped by this important input. We consider an inclusive approach to research with autistic groups to be vital when working to understand their priorities, opportunities and challenges in using technology.

‘‘We already know that robots can offer a range of benefits to people with autism but now we can explore exactly how they work in a school setting and how children and teachers can make the best use of them; in areas identified by the pupils and teachers themselves. It will be particularly interesting to see how pupils view and engage with the robot. For example, it could be seen as a friend, teaching assistant or simply a piece of equipment.’’

Socially intelligent robots like Pepper are a big expense, costing approximately £20,000, but Dr Newbutt believes they could be a worthwhile investment for schools in the future. He said: ‘‘Research in this area is still in its early stages but it has shown that robots can be effective in supporting autistic children while augmenting their learning development. Of course, robots can represent a big initial investment for schools, but the investment could be supported with greater evidence and research exploring how, why and where such technologies offer “value-added” contexts in schools. Our research project intends to start this conversation so that schools may consider engaging with robot technology in the future.’’

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. According to the National Autistic Society, approximately one in 68 people are on the autistic spectrum and there are approximately 700,000 impacted by autism in the UK. While autism impacts everyone differently, some of the most common challenges include: difficulty in communicating and understanding how others feel, anxiety in unfamiliar situations and finding stimuli like loud noises overwhelming and stressful.