Medical robot teaches autistic children how to read emotions

DRAPER — A robot is doing what parents and teachers of autistic kids often can’t — narrowing the gap. “Medi” the medical robot can do a mean Michael Jackson. As it danced to “Thriller,” 7-year-old Owen Johnson, who has autism, and his siblings danced along with it.

Medi can also walk, talk, sing, hear and answer questions. The $20,000 robot has four microphones on its head, two cameras for its eyes and a microchip for a brain that connects to the Internet. It acted out emotions and Owen and his siblings guessed them.

There are no robots like Medi in Utah yet, but the Johnson family got a sneak peek at what Medi can do when Robert Stokes, president of Stokes Educational Services, brought Medi to their home Wednesday.

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“He’s having a hard time reading the other kids’ social cues,” said Cally Johnson, Owen’s mother, who lives in Draper. “‘When do I stop telling my story,’ or ‘Are they paying attention,’ or ‘What do their facial expressions mean? Are they making fun of me? Are they listening?'”

But with Medi, the bond is instant.

“That’s the most normal we’ve seen him act, with a robot, as opposed to a person,” Johnson said.

Robert Stokes said the robot makes breakthroughs with children who are hard to reach mentally and emotionally.

“Sometimes kids who haven’t ever communicated with an adult, and are almost noncommunicative, they’re communicating with the robot, and then that transfers,” said Stokes.

The robot can also be effective in reducing pain in pediatric patients after surgeries, Stokes said. That’s also good news for the Johnson family, whose youngest, Evie, suffers from a rare syndrome and faces her 30th surgery.

Medi made a “happy” face and raised its arms in the air. “Joy,” Owen exclaimed. “Well done,” Medi answered.

“It was so fun, you know; sometimes as special-needs parents you get a tear,” Johnson said. “It’s joyful to see him have such a good time and just to have no stress. I think that’s what you want as a parent: no stress, no anxiety, but to have a sincerely good time.”

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