The extraordinary challenges women face when balancing a demanding career and raising a child with special needs are immense. Yet, some of the most inspiring stories are about how mothers find creative ways to overcome these challenges, especially over the past year with the additional pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognition of the challenges faced by those who are both mothers and professionals, as well as a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, is sorely needed.
One company, in particular, that’s on a mission to help with this is MOVIA Robotics, a collaborative robotics company building systems and software to help people and robots work together to assist those with special needs. Based in Bristol, Connecticut, and serving families, schools, and clinicians worldwide, MOVIA’s team of experts is passionate about making sure both the children and their parents flourish.
The company builds systems tailored to help children on the autism spectrum and with special needs and abilities learn and grow using collaborative robotic technology. Timothy Gifford founded MOVIA—an internationally renowned scientist, researcher, and entrepreneur who has worked with NASA led the team that built the first virtual reality exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution and is a sought-after consultant and presenter on Robot-Assisted Instruction, Autism, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Collaborative Robotics, Human Perception, and Assistive Technology.
Technology Supporting Autistic Individuals
The idea to focus on helping children on the Autism Spectrum came from Gifford wanting to help his wife, an elementary school teacher in West Hartford, CT, one of the leading school districts in the country. She identified how autistic individuals often require a large amount of one-on-one care, which was very difficult for staff in the school system. Gifford then set out to build an effective tool that could help teachers, therapists and parents reach children and help them gain the skills they need to succeed in their lives. Gifford combined his research into human-robotic interaction with earlier work he had done to create virtual characters and build friendly robots that could interact with children engagingly.
He explains that the name “MOVIA” was inspired by the words “movement” and “motivation,” a fitting combo since MOVIA moves families in a positive direction and motivates children to learn by making it accessible and fun. Robot-Assisted Instruction leverages the unique peer bond relationship between a child and a robot to unlock doors for learning. Research has revealed that robots can help children with autism solve problems, verbalize their ideas, and create a communicative bond with the robot. This facilitates growth, both at home as well as in the classroom.
Finding New Ways to Create Support
The recent development of cost-effective assistive technologies has been incredibly beneficial to parents raising and teaching their autistic children at home. For example, assistive technologies can support communication, sensory challenges, activities for daily living, learning readiness, and social skills.
Vice President of Sales, Muniba Masood, shares that “Mothers of children with autism are not praised enough for their selflessness in raising a child with special needs. It takes a village to raise a child on the autism spectrum; family, siblings, therapists, teachers, and more, and when that village is stripped away by something like a pandemic, life can become exponentially more difficult for those affected by autism.” She continues, “I speak every day with some of the most heroic parents who have children with autism and are seeking new methods, and it’s so rewarding when I can assist them with opening a new door and unlocking the learning potential of their child.”
According to the CDC, in the United States alone, 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with autism. Autism has been identified in 1 in 34 boys and 1 in 144 girls. Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed across all socio-economic backgrounds and races; autism does not discriminate, yet the causes are unknown. As rates of autism increase, mothers of children with autism are in more need than ever of support, and there are seldom enough cost-effective resources readily available to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation, as schools have gone to remote learning; many therapists have resorted to zoom calls, and resources have become more scarce, placing yet an additional burden on families of children with special needs.
Research has shown that some autistic children tend to gravitate and are attracted to technology. Robots become a non-threatening, non-judgmental, peer-like entity, opening pathways to learning through which the child can explore a new world. In addition, this innovation is proving to be an invaluable aid for the hardworking mother raising a child with special needs.
Robots in Educational Settings
Many schools have been bringing Robot-Assisted Instruction into their classrooms, and the advancements witnessed in these children are astounding. Teachers and professionals are amazed at how beneficial the interaction between the robot and child is. The child is immediately drawn towards the robot within the first introduction and excited to learn and interact.
Kebbi, one of MOVIA’s robots, was created for both home and school use. Kebbi is an educational robot that integrates artificial intelligence, software, and hardware technology to provide various facial expressions, body movements, and communicative interactions. Kebbi offers a unique set of interactive capabilities that work wonderfully in the home or school environment, providing users with a heartwarming, educational experience.
Kristen Whoolery, a Speech-Language Pathologist in Wallingford, Connecticut, who has been using MOVIA’s RAI systems with her students, shared that the robot’s immediate impact on children with autism makes learning comfortable exciting, non-judgmental, and anxiety-free. “It has been life-changing,” she said. “I have enjoyed seeing the robot’s interaction with the students and how it has changed their lives.”
The company hopes that it’s helping these hardworking heroes – parents, teachers, and of course, autistic individuals making their lives a little less challenging.
However, it is essential never to forget the significant contributions working women raising children with special needs offer their families and society every day and keep moving positively towards a brighter future.