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Interactive robot joins social-emotional program

YOUNGSTOWN – The Paula and Anthony Rich Center for Autism has acquired another tool to enhance its social skills and emotional development curriculum: a 2-foot figure with spiked hair and a few dance moves.

“This is just another formal component to add to that,” Gregory V. Boerio, the center’s executive director, said.

Boerio was referring to Milo, a sophisticated and interactive robot that was introduced and demonstrated during a news conference Monday at the facility on the Youngstown State University campus.

The device was courtesy of a $132,123 Youngstown Foundation grant and will be used largely to adopt and implement an accredited social skills curriculum for students age 3 to 21 on the autism spectrum. It also will enhance the center’s mission centered on autism education and accessibility of learning for students.

Another similar robot will be used at the Rich Center’s satellite office in St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Boardman as part of the facility’s evidence-based best practices for those on the spectrum, Boerio noted.

“They are going to fit very much around our efforts with research, education and treatment,” he said.

Marleigh Gilyard, partnership success manager for a Dallas-based company called RoboKind, which manufactured the robots, noted that the devices aimed at improving positive behavior outcomes in those on the spectrum, will fulfill four modules.

The four are emotional regulation, which uses calming techniques for those with autism; conversational, techniques for appropriately starting, engaging in and ending conversations; emotional understanding, mimicking and helping users to better comprehend facial expressions; and situational models, which guide those on the spectrum to better navigate certain key real-life situations, Gilyard explained.

The research- and education-based robots communicate via using an electronic tablet, and they can speak and make a variety of moves, such as mimicking dancing. Perhaps more importantly, they can be a highly effective means to empower students with autism and help them better engage with peers, family members and teachers, Brian Baggs, RoboKind’s vice president for partnerships, noted.

Boerio recalled having been introduced to Milo about three years ago at a major annual autism conference called OCALI (Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence) in Columbus. After conferring with other autism experts at the event, Boerio decided he wanted the robot to be an integral part of the 26-year-old not-for-profit center’s social-emotional curriculum, he remembered.

“The general thought was, ‘Let’s bring Milo to the Rich Center'” to supplement what the facility is already doing, he said.

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