autism teletherapy kaspar

KASPAR: Is Embracing Robotic Empathy the Next Stop for Autism?

Who is KASPAR?

KASPAR may not be a ghost, but he sure is friendly. Who is KASPAR you may ask? He is none other than Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics; a robot conceived initially by artificial intelligence researcher Kerstin Dautenhahn and her collaborators in England during the 1990s. Now you know why he goes by KASPAR!  

Some 15 years later, the KASPAR Project was formally launched. There were two goals for KASPAR. The first was for the robot to function as a “social mediator” facilitating communication between autistic children and the people with whom they are in daily contact—other children (autistic or not), therapists, teachers, and parents.

KASPAR’s second mission was to become as a learning and therapeutic tool that would assist autistic children to develop various social skills that most children master fairly automatically such as understanding others’ emotions and reacting appropriately, expressing feelings, and cooperating when playing with others.

The challenge was to create a robotic partner whose presence is immediately reassuring because its behavior can be both anticipated and understood with ease.

Currently, KASPAR is a robot about the size of a three years old child. Deliberately, he doesn’t appear particularly realistic. The face of the humanoid robot is a silicon mask that is skin-colored lacking any details that would preclude the child’s capacity to determine age, gender, or even emotional intensity.

This lack of definition allows the child’s imagination to work uninhibited, so that the child can see KASPAR as a friend – or at the very least as “someone” – with whom he can feel comfortable.

Do Children Like KASPAR?

Autistic children invariably take to KASPAR from the get-go. The robot’s operator can move KASPAR’s entire upper body including its torso, arms, and head in addition to being able to open and close its mouth and eyes and display minimal emotional expressiveness, making KASPAR uncomplicated and easy to interpret.

Research has suggested that KASPAR’s expressive minimalism provides autistic children with a sufficiently predictable, safe and reassuring social context that gives them comfort thereby encouraging them to play with others and try new things.

For example, when a child incorrectly correctly judges how much force to exert when touching KASPAR, the game continues uninterrupted, without the child is feeling rejected. Instead, KASPAR says, “Ouch! That hurts!”—without getting angry and ejecting the child from the game, as so often will happen with other children.

What Is KASPAR’S Secret

KASPAR’s effectiveness with autistic children stems from the fact that the robot provides the child with a relaxed atmosphere in which, unlike the social situations she is accustomed to, she is protected from the uncomfortable and often stressful consequences that result from her many errors of interpretation.

The robot is never critical or dismissive when the child is inappropriate. Instead, the child will be gently corrected by KASPAR while simultaneously receiving reassurance from the robot. KASPAR’s responses are both clear and predictable. The result? The autistic child is encouraged to persevere in learning social skills.

But with all that KASPAR has to offer, there are those who oppose the robot.

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Any Downside To KASPAR?


The first objection is that social robots are often thought of as a way of delegating a caregiver’s obligations to impersonal machines. However, it must be understood that robotic interaction partners such as KASPAR are not meant to replace humans, but rather to support them in providing treatment.

The second objection to KASPAR is that robots are typically accused of having false emotions, pretending to have feelings like those of humans without an authentic internal experience. While this is true, interactions with empathic robots should be seen as more similar to the ones we have with pets or that a child has with a stuffed toy animal, where the child’s emotions are of course real.

What do you think?

virtual reality teletherapy

Should the Mental Health Community Embrace Virtual Reality?

How is Virtual Reality Applied to Mental Health?

Researchers have been developing systems using virtual reality to assist people in overcoming phobias for over 20 years. Since then virtual reality (VR) therapy has been expanded to help with more complex anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress, social anxiety and the anxiety associated with paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Key to any effective treatment of an anxiety disorder is to face the fear, otherwise known as exposure therapy. With the clinician providing emotional support, the patient by consistently confronting his fear gradually becomes desensitized to that particular fear.

 

It has been shown that confronting fears is easier in a virtual setting. A patient with a phobia about flying can take off and land many times in a single VR session while never paying for the flight. Army veterans with PTSD who can’t recall the details of a traumatic memory can reenact the event in exhaustive detail in VR enhancing the therapeutic experience.

 

Until recently, the complexity and cost of VR equipment were prohibitive, effectively limiting VR therapy to research labs and clinics. Now, computer-based headsets can be purchased for hundreds of dollars. And as the technology develops the price will continue to drop making virtual reality therapy available to many more patients,

 

It May be Virtual, but it Sure Feels Real

The effectiveness of VR therapy stems from the automatic reaction that everyone has from fear cues, even in when the environment is known to be unreal. This is because the amygdala (the brain’s fear sensor) responds to stressors in a matter of milliseconds, much quicker than the message is processed in the frontal cortex (the logic center).

 

Consequently, patients who experience their fears in VR have shown the same physiological reactions, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a higher heart rate as those who confront their fears in the “real world.” Initially, researchers weren’t sure that a computer simulation could provoke those reactions, but clinical experience has allayed that concern.

 

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And There is More to Come!

As one prominent psychologist exclaimed “the beauty of VR” is that you can do stuff that you can’t do in real life.” For instance, coaching a socially anxious patient through a conversation sometimes requires redirecting that person’s focus away from himself and toward his environment. In VR, the therapist can effortlessly direct the client’s attention to some aspect of the virtual world to help him dispel his self-consciousness.

 

Researchers in South Korea are now testing a combination of fantastical and real elements to help those with panic disorder. In the new VR program, the patient enters the panic-inducing situation, like a crowded elevator. If the patient has a panic attack, she can hit the escape button and instantly be transported to a peaceful beach. Once “moved” to that haven, the patient receives instructions to calm her breathing.

 

What’s the Verdict?

According to some prominent psychologists, “The real question is if VR is as good as traditional therapies, which one should we do for which patients, and why?” To date, researchers have been able to identify a couple of factors that can be used as a barometer to predict for whom virtual reality will be most beneficial.

 

Being younger and not taking antidepressants — seemed to indicate those who would fare better with VR. It makes sense that tech-driven treatment would resonate better with younger patients whose world is dominated by technology.

 

To be sure many will never consider as a viable substitute for a human therapist. They maintain that despite the effectiveness of virtual reality, mental health therapy can never be reduced to techniques. The relationship between therapist and client is non-negotiable, in particular, the human element of empathy.

 

Others are enthusiastically embracing the dizzying advances in technology and the increasingly useful applications in the realm of the human psyche and healing. They maintain that after all is said and done, the bottom line is what will benefit the client most. If the machine will do a better job than the human therapist, so be it!

What do you think?

rural school therapist

3 Reasons to Become a Teacher or Therapist in a Rural School

It sounds like a broken record already: “Schools in Rural America are in deep trouble.” Between population loss, stiff financial challenges, and the inability to match the resources of the larger, more developed urban areas, at times it seems difficult to find anything positive about schools in rural communities. If so, why would any teacher or therapist want to move to Rural America to begin or advance a career?

However, this conclusion is superficial at best. If we take the time to look beyond the pessimistic headlines, it becomes quite clear that Rural America has much to offer both teachers and therapists. Let’s explore three of the essential reasons a teacher or therapist would seriously consider taking a position in a school in Rural America.

1. Students are Real People Outside the Context of School

For those so inclined, there are many more opportunities to participate in the social and communal life of a rural community. This participation may take the form of becoming a member of a volunteer ambulance service or fire department, help with economic development, or attending a house of worship and getting involved in related activities. Many times, those extracurricular involvements will be together with students and their parents.

In the big city, how likely is it to bump into a student in the grocery store or while taking a walk through the park? Not so in a rural community. Since life is being lived in a more compact area, the chances of bumping into your students are increased manifold. After all, life is less compartmentalized and more holistic, so living in a rural community lends itself to seeing your students.

2. You Will be Known and Your Impact Will be Felt

Teachers and therapists are known to be passionate about making a difference in the lives of their students. In a rural community, you are not only making a difference with the children, but you are also making a difference with the community as a whole. The school is a centerpiece of the town, and the good vibes can be felt everywhere.

3. Rural Areas are Blessed With a Strong Sense of Community

It is well known that rural areas have a strong sense of community. Generally speaking, parents of the student body take part in the various aspects of their children’s education more than their counterparts in urban areas.

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Your class events will become an opportunity for the entire community to participate. Participating in school events allows everyone to experience being a part of something larger than themselves. The school building is seen as a “community center” invested with a purpose that goes beyond education.

In one rural school, the school’s motto, “Tradition of Excellence,” is part of practically every school activity. On the walls throughout the building can be found class photos over 100 years old that serve as a constant reminder of the value ascribed to the traditions and importance of the previous generations. These schools breathe a sense of continuity.

Due to this closeness within the community, there is a greater sense of identity, and it becomes more difficult for individuals to fall through the cracks. The urban syndrome of being nothing more than a number practically doesn’t exist. In today’s increasing faceless world, this can profoundly impact students’ self-esteem and goes a long way to arresting the toxicity of loneliness.

Bottom Line

Don’t believe half of what you hear about schools in Rural America! Granted, there are problems, but much is being done to solve them. If you are the type of person who sees beyond the paycheck and appreciates what it means to connect to people, teaching or providing therapy in Rural America may be just what you are looking for!

autism awareness

4 Ways You Can Help Your Autistic Child Talk Again

There are many parents of autistic children who have been told that if their child isn’t talking by 4 or 5 years old, they may as well give up hope that they ever will. But on a more hopeful note, some researchers take an opposing view. They point to children who developed language during grade-school or even adolescence.

A recent student involving over 500 children confirms this more optimistic view. Scientists at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, in Baltimore, review data on 535 children, ranging in age from 8 to 17, plagued with severe language delays at age 4 and thus considered autistic.

These researchers discovered that most of these children eventually acquired language skills. Almost half (47%) were able to speak fluently, while over two-thirds (70 %) gained the ability to express themselves in simple phrases.

But the researchers didn’t stop there. They sought to identify those factors that could predict if an autistic child who was severely language-delayed child with autism would be able to speak eventually.

Contrary to popular belief, these researchers found that the child’s level of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests was not significant in developing language. However, what they did notice is that those children with a higher IQ (as assessed with nonverbal testing) and lower impairment in the social realm was predictive of becoming verbal.

These discoveries clearly indicate that early intervention in developing social and nonverbal cognitive skills will go a long way in helping to promote the language.

So, what are those strategies that will help promote the development of language in children and teenagers with autism who are unable to speak?

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1. Encourage Your Child to Interact and Play Socially

It has long been established that children learn much about life when they play- including developing language skills. When you play, aside from bonding, you are providing fun opportunities to communicate with your child as well. Be sure to focus on those activities that promote interacting socially.

2. Become Your Child’s Mimic

When you imitate the sounds that your child makes and those behaviors that come out in play, you will be encouraging your child to vocalize and interact more. What’s more, when you imitate your child he/she will often imitate you back, fostering even more interaction. Just make sure that the behavior is positive, and nothing gets broken!

3. Give Your Child Time to Respond

After you speak to your child and there is no immediate response, it is only natural to fill the vacuum of silence by speaking again. But this is a mistake as it doesn’t give sufficient opportunity for your child to respond. Pause for a moment, and look for any movement or sound, and then respond immediately. This will give your child a taste of the power of his/her ability to communicate, even non-verbally.

4. Non-Verbal Communication Should be a Focus

What many people don’t realize is that eye contact and gestures build a language foundation for your child. It is essential when you gesture to exaggerate that gesture. And be sure to utilize both your voice and your body when you are communicating. This form of “total communication” can be transformational for an autistic child.

Maximizing These Suggestions

Should you have any questions as to which strategies may be the most effective for your child, or how to implement them, don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s speech therapist.  And keep the conversation going, sharing your successes and challenges as you move along the new continuum of helping your child find his/her unique “voice.”