One core trait of autism is difficulty with social interaction. Over recent times there have been several toys and robots developed with the goal of teaching kids with autism how to interact with others. A New Zealand designer, Victoria University’s Helen Andreae, has developed a furry toy called Auti with this goal in mind. Auti is essentially a furball with four short flippers that responds with jiggling movements to positive social interactions such as gentle talking and touch. If there are negative social interactions, such as shouting and hitting, Auti stops. The idea is that the child’s positive social behaviour will be positively reinforced by Auti’s movements.
The benefit of using toys and robots to help teach social skills is that the toy can be programmed to respond consistently. Consistent responses help children to learn the correct behaviors more quickly. The soft, tactile nature of Auti could be appealing to some children with autism and encourage them to interact with Auti. Another good point about Auti is that it responds to touch as well as speech, so children without speech could still interact with Auti and potentially learn.
There are limitations to such toys, however. As with all toys of this type, they are not human and the ultimate goal is for the child to learn to interact with other people. Auti in particular is in no way human, making it less likely that skills learned will be easily transferred to interactions with people. The responses required to activate Auti are also limited and therefore may not be very useful in everyday interactions with others. For example, stroking other people is not necessarily desirable. Also, the core principle of Auti is that the child will find its movements reinforcing and will not like it when it ceases to make these movements. However, all children are different and this may not be the case for some children with autism. They may enjoy engaging in the inappropriate behaviours to see Auti stop as much as engaging in the positive social interactions. Research would need to be carried out to see if playing with Auti has any effect on a child’s interactions with other people. At present, the treatment for teaching children with autism with the most evidence to support it is applied behavior analysis (ABA).
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