IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - March 2018 - 35

realities, including the solutions they may attach to the
challenges associated to their beliefs and value systems.

Autism Models and Change
Autism is a complex congenital condition involving
severe delays and deficits in speech and language and
communication and social interaction skills. The use of
robots as therapeutic tools for children with autism is
inspired by a number of factors summarized here:
The clinical use of interactive robots is a promising development in light of research showing that
individuals with ASD: a) exhibit strengths in
understanding the physical (object-related) world
and relative weaknesses in understanding the
social world... b) are more responsive to feedback, even social feedback, when administered
via technology rather than a human,...and c) are
more intrinsically interested in treatment when it
involves electronic or robotic components (cited
in [47, p. 2].)
In the field of robot therapy for children with autism,
the theories of autism specialist Simon Baron-Cohen,
particularly the Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) theory of
autism, and the Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM), continue to impact the underlying theory of the potential
benefits of robot therapy for children with autism spectrum conditions [8], [20], [48]. Recent studies have
explored development of a multilayer reactive system for
robots "creating an illusion of being alive" [13] to exploring how robots could engage in "synchrony and reciprocity" in social encounters between therapy robots and
children with autism [26]. The push to enhance the technology to explore more possible therapy scenarios is
technically demanding, with real-time reciprocal social
interaction still problematic. Moreover, many researchers
work within the confines of existing robotic technology,
virtual reality, and computer technologies developed for
other purposes and studied in relation to an autism
focused requirement, e.g., turn-taking, joint attention, or
imitation. DREAM's robot-enhanced technological software and hardware designed specifically for autism therapy has the potential to move the research forward.
Much of the literature on robot therapy for autism rarely
accounts for the changing meaning of autism over time.
Autism, as a category is not fixed in time and space and
its diagnosis and relevance to medicine and society is
constantly shifting. For example, in the 1980s, only
twenty percent of persons diagnosed with autism had an
I.Q. above 80, whereas today this figure is radically different as in the 1994 version of DSM-III autism began to
include persons with Asperger's who typically had a
higher I.Q. [19]. Furthermore, the "deficit model" of
march 2018

∕

autism by Baron-Cohen et al. is challenged in some
quarters by disability and difference advocates and new
empirical studies [7].
Using particular types of language and premises to
describe what a person with autism is like might be
helpful to roboticists, but is it useful for children and
adults with autism? Robots are not autistic, as machines
cannot be autistic, and the analogy or metaphor of people with autism to machines and robots is highly problematic. If robots are autists, then are autists robots?
What exactly is this language implying about human
beings with autism? Mechanistic descriptions of autism
have been used in robotics because they are drawn
from the Baron-Cohen model, without taking into
account the varied complexity, and real lived life experiences of people with autism.
For example Baron-Cohen's emphasis on a lack of
empathy in individuals with autism has provoked criticism from some researchers, adults with Asperger's,
and parents [33].
The use of particular kinds of language can impact
the acceptance or rejection of autism-focused technology or medicine. One unsuccessful campaign was
launched by Autism Speaks in 2014 titled MSSNG. The
MSSNG campaign referred to a genome sequencing project, but individuals with autism took issue with the
explicit "neuro-typical" language in the public launch.
This led to a backlash from the autism community, particularly adults with Asperger's and parents of children
with autism. Also, there are some adults with autism that
reject a biomedical approach that aims to "cure" autism.
Autism advocates see autism as part of their identity.
Bagatell [1] for example describes attending an Asperger's group with a member wearing a T-shirt "eye contact
is overrated" as group members subvert normative
assumptions about what is socially normal. In some cultures, it is considered disrespectful for a young person
to maintain eye contract with an older person or a
female person to maintain eye contact with a male, so
eye-contact norms can vary from culture to culture [28].
It is important in the DREAM project that language
used to describe children or adults with autism is carefully considered as such language can lead to negative
impacts on persons with autism and their families. As
Richardson [31] has explained, the use of mechanical
metaphors can be taken to extremes and persons with
autism are often described as occupying a state
between a typical person and a machine.

Themes from the Interviews
The research identified a number of themes relevant for
discussion. These are as follows:
No One Autism for All (Nor One Robot for All).
We found that among the cohort of our interviewees,

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