One of the challenges when dealing with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is holding their attention long enough to teach them new or necessary skills.
It takes time, trust and according to Dr Khew E Joon, maybe even a little help from technology.
“Children who fall under the spectrum have a hard time connecting with people, following instructions, or having good social and communication skills.
“Using technology helps, as it makes learning more interesting. We know that children today are obsessed with gadgets, so rather than taking technology away, we can use it to make learning more appealing to them,” says Khew, who has a doctorate in Zoology and is also a Registered Behaviour Technician.
Khew is the founder of Animals for Young, a learning centre in Cyberjaya that assists children and adolescents with special needs. He uses animals like cats, dogs and even horses as part of the therapy, and incorporates technology during the sessions.
Khew has built a robotic “cat” using the Lego Educational tool. Its shape and motions intrigue the children who are taught to pet and play with the mechanical toy.
“We encourage them to interact with the robotic cat, and when we know that they are ready and accepting to learn more, we introduce real cats to them,” he says.
Khew adds: “A lot of conventional therapies also work in the area of developing motor skills and sensory recognition – but we at Animals for Young look for different methods to help the children,” he says.
The children are exposed to mechanical toys which emit sounds and lights and that helps them cope with multi-sensory exposure, an area that can be difficult and overwhelming for some.
But it is not all just fun and games, as the toys are also tools that teach crucial skills.
Khew points to a colourful caterpillar that slithers on the floor. He says that the toy helps impart basic coding skills to the children. “The caterpillar uses a combination of actions to move, and the children have to figure it out. It teaches them the critical thinking skills that they need.
“We will slowly give the children specific targets to accomplish, adding obstacles along the way, and they will have to use sequencing and problem solving skills to achieve their goals,” he says.
“Of course, we can go the conventional way, using paper and pen or draw a maze and ask the children to figure out an escape route, but it’s the additional colours and sounds that make the lessons easier to be absorbed,” he says.
There are six therapists assisting children aged two to 13 at the centre which was established in 2017. They focus on small groups of children every day, and also offer more specific, goal-driven teaching during the one-on-one sessions.
A new addition to the one-on-one session is Leka, a robot from France manufactured by a startup company with the same name. The robot was reportedly developed to focus on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities, and can act as a friend to them.
Parents and caregivers can use an app to control Leka which lights up, plays music, vibrates and whirls, much to the children’s delight.
“The main aim of using Leka is to play educational games with the children. We ask them to follow specific instructions, like identifying colours and objects, while teaching them how to interact with another being,” he says.
Leka can be customised to suit individual children, teaching them to receive and respond to social cues with the therapist overseeing the session.
“For kids who are always in their own world, robots like Leka can perhaps provide the comfort that they need. It can slowly build up their confidence to talk to other people,” explains Khew.
When used correctly, technology can be very helpful in addressing the needs of children with autism, believes Khew. And there is a difference between using robotics to help these children and plonking them in front of a smartphone or tablet, he says.
“Yes, a tablet can be educational and is convenient for many parents, but it is not result oriented. We need to use technology to guide the children and be result oriented. Every step is a lesson to learn, and you have to teach them one by one,” says Khew.