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A Class in COVID: CT-based robotics company develops robots geared toward interacting with kids on autism spectrum

Technology

(WTNH) — Folks with autism have trouble reading people’s faces and voices. They don’t get tone and nuance very well. But they do not have trouble with robots. One Connecticut-based robotics company is creating a new breed of robots specifically geared toward interacting with kids on the autism spectrum.

6-year-old Jackson Valenti has a new friend: Pete.

Pete the robot talks. Jackson’s form of autism did not let him talk much, at least not until Pete moved in a few months ago.

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Christy Valenti, Jackson’s mom explained, “Communicating with people was really hard for him, and Pete has allowed him to open up and just be himself.”

Pete was created by Bristol-based Movia Robotics. Founder Tim Gifford envisioned his robots as a way to supplement regular teaching and therapy for kids on the spectrum.

Gifford told News 8, “Children with autism often find people confusing and they get very tentative in their interactions. But with the robot, they can interact in a way that is very free and open.”

Movia robots were being used by special ed teachers in schools, but then the COVID-19 pandemic closed the schools. Many autistic kids do not handle remote learning well.

Movia’s Chief Education Officer Rob Parenti also runs a special needs school and explained that when his school had to be closed amid the pandemic, “the majority of my students did not log on once. They just did not have the wherewithal. They did not have the attention span.”

So now the company is focusing more on a smaller, home version of their robot.

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Neurotypical kids try it in the office and Jackson is trying it at home.

The lessons have Jackson talking more to his family. After a few weeks with Pete, Jackson said something he never had before: “And he just came over and he said, ‘Mom, I love you,” says Valenti. “It was a big thing because that communication is not spontaneous for kids like Jackson.”

“When you can make a situation predictable for a student, the student is more likely to take a chance and meet some success,” explained Parenti.

That kind of success is more important than ever in the isolation of a pandemic. So is having a friend.

And so is hearing “I love you, mommy” for the first time.

“For him to just come over and say that spontaneous thing, especially that to a mom, it was a great thing,” Valenti says.

The Valentis are trying this system out for Movia, but a system like that is expected to cost around $2,500 a year.

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