About one in six kids today has a developmental disability, according to the CDC, and many of the affected children suffer from autism or a related neurological condition that creates learning challenges. Quite rare only a few decades ago, autism has exploded to reach epidemic levels; the disease now touches almost every family, and those who aren’t directly related to someone with autism usually know someone who is.
The impact on classrooms is dramatic, as huge numbers of kids with autism or a similar diagnosis flood the schools in most communities. While severely affected children often spend their time in self-contained classrooms, many kids are mainstreamed into standard classrooms at all academic levels, including gifted programs and focused educational approaches designed to meet special interests (i.e. magnet programs for science, math, engineering or other areas).
High-tech learning tools are rapidly expanding their classroom presence as well, and the timing couldn’t be better. Computer-based educational applications can deliver efficient learning experiences for typical and atypical students, allowing them to proceed at their own pace and enjoy a gaming-style approach in some cases. The more advanced classroom tools that employ the latest artificial intelligence (AI) developments, however, are particularly well suited to delivering supportive learning experiences to children with autism and those with similar learning disabilities.
AI-based learning tools can offer the endless repetition that kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) find reassuring, and do so without bumping up against the limits on patience or available time that a human teacher almost certainly would run into. Robotic educational interactions are completely free of judgment or frustration – at least on the “teacher’s” end. They also have the ability to offer boundless access to information for answering questions the learning process may inspire.
Few parents or educators would consider robotic teaching toys superior to human teachers, but in some aspects these tech tools may offer unique advantages over their flesh-and-blood counterparts. ASD students often have great difficulty engaging with human teachers and counselors or fully benefiting from their help, since the stress of face-to-face interaction impairs the ability to concentrate on the subject matter under discussion.
By interacting with AI toys and educational applications, these students can relax and enjoy the learning process in ways that are impossible with a human teacher. Without the burden of interpersonal connection, ASD learners are able to focus on the material and demonstrate their often-high intellectual abilities, which are frequently hidden by the ubiquitous challenge of social interactions.
Tools that utilize AI are proving invaluable for helping ASD children practice “human” interaction in a low-stress environment, and engaging in play that approaches the style in which typically developing children usually interact. In addition to traditional academic subjects, AI tools can provide significant help with speech and conversation, along with social and emotional skills. The technique can even support children in developing greater self-awareness, empathy and communication ability (traditional weak areas for those on the autism spectrum) that can then be carried over to build and enhance relationships with the actual humans in their lives.
Autism is a complex condition, and there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to education for these students or others, as every parent and teacher knows. Nonetheless, AI tools hold great promise for helping students with autism as well as typical learners pursue their interests and learn the skills that will help them reach their individual potential – both in the classroom and outside of it.