Florida Receives $2.5 Million Grant Researching AI for Children with ASD

Florida Receives $2.5 Million Grant Researching AI for Children with ASD

What do you get when you combine innovative special education researchers, computer scientists, a charter school, and a $2.5 million dollar grant from the US Department of Education? 

Zoobee!

Zoobee is an adorable teddy bear powered by AI to aid in autism therapy.  Researchers hope Zoobee will help elementary students with autism become more aware of their emotions and actions in social settings, a major goal of ABA therapy.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) are developing and testing the concept at the charter school Unlocking Children’s Potential (UCP) of Central Florida, where children with ASD like nine-year old Aiden are already befriending Zoobee. 

UCF-grant-autism-children
Image source: Fox 35 Orlando

How Zoobee Works

Zoobee works as a social-emotional coach for Aiden and other children on the autism spectrum.  As Zoobee teaches children basic coding skills, it’s simultaneously and constantly modeling social skills and interactions.  Students wear a biometrics watch that monitors how much stress or comfort the child experiences while in Zoobee’s World.

Zoobee explains how emotions feel and what they might look like.  For example, the bear’s heart changes colors when its emotions change.  If it’s happy, the heart is green.  If it’s sad, then the heart turns blue.  Yellow means worried, and red means Zoobee is mad. 

During one session, Aiden purposely tried to make Zoobee angry so he could see the bear’s heart color change.  Researchers were greatly encouraged to see that Aiden understood how his actions could cause emotional responses in others.  This was a very “nonthreatening way” for a child with ASD to learn that hurtful comments really do impact the other person, according to UCF professor Rebecca Hines.  Aiden eventually did apologize to Zoobee. 

“Technology can be a much more comfortable environment for students with autism,” said Hines, the project’s co-director, whose research interests are helping students with emotional-behavioral disorders and innovative uses of technology in the classroom.

Teaching Others

UCF autism disorder specialist Joanna Couch has observed that children with autism tend to be more open with technology.  AI “can definitely become a helpful resource in making them feel more included,” she said. 

Taking social interaction to a new level, in the second phase of Zoobee, students with ASD will be coaching a peer without disabilities.  Giving a child with autism an elevated position of leadership will help motivate them to use their verbal and non-verbal communication skills in building new relationships. 

If the research goes well, the final goal of the project is to offer Zoobee as an open-access program for all schools to use.  The ability to increase emotional awareness and social recognition is an integral component in ABA therapy as it relates to teaching “Social Skills” to children with autism and could be further supported at school with the use of technology like Zoobee. We look forward to seeing the results of this research and thank UCF, UCP and the US Department of Education for this project!