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Milo helping autistic students at Kingsport's Washington Elementary

Rick Wagner • Apr 22, 2018 at 1:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Washington Elementary School has someone new on staff this school year named Milo, and he’s a friend of 9-year-old student Will Russell, who was diagnosed with autism at age 4.

Milo helps autistic students learn personal interaction skills, among other things.

Milo is a robot.

Milo, made by a company called Robokind out of Texas, is one of a handful of his kind in Tennessee. In fact, the next closest Milo is in a therapy center in Owensboro, Ky., according to Billy Etter, a specialized learning environment communications and behavior (SLECB) teacher at Washington. The robot helps children taught by Etter in grades K-2 and another SLECB teacher, Cherie Herald, who works in grades 3-5.

The robot  is used across the United States, including in select schools in South Carolina, and has served eight students at Washington this school year, including six still actively using Milo.

WHAT DOES MILO DO?

Etter, in his third year with Kingsport City Schools, said Milo is a humanoid robot that helps autistic children that can “reach them in a way that we as humans can’t.” After all, Milo doesn’t get impatient, is consistent and never judges. He also speaks at 82 percent of average human speech, which makes it easier for students to understand. 

“He collects data as well,” Etter said of information that includes which module the student is using, how long the student has been on that module and how long the student has used Milo overall, as well as right and wrong answers and response time. “All I have to do is facilitate.”

In addition, he said, Milo has been updated to include activities for adults with dementia, and fellow teacher Herald said Milo can be used by middle and high school students as well as adults, the latter mostly for dementia.

HOW EFFECTIVE IS MILO?

Heather Russell, Will’s mother, said she and her son first encountered Will before the start of the 2017-18 school year when Will transferred to Washington. 

“They had Milo in the meeting room we were in,” Russell said. “Throughout the year, Will’s been working with him (Milo) on a regular basis.”

Russell said her son has become more aware of other people in social settings. For instance, she said, when he encounters a couple walking at the mall, he walks to one side rather than in the middle of the couple. He also has more appropriate responses and introductions for other children, such as saying hello and initiating play rather than just announcing he wants someone to be his friend.

Will was nonverbal until he was 5 but this school year began calling his grandmother on the phone, passing along messages between his grandmother and mother. “It’s been great,” Russell said. “We’ve seen great strides in Will this year.”

Etter said that, at least in the beginning, Milo’s work is not so much about right or wrong answers but about engaging the student.

“All of our kids seem interested,” Etter said, even the ones not working with Milo, who can talk, dance, walk and do other movements. He said one student was scared of Milo at the start of the school year but eventually warmed up to him, finally approaching and interacting with Milo.

He said one kindergarten student began having conversations with his dad, starting one day when his father came in from work and the son met him at the door with “What’s up?” That was followed by a conversation, one the dad wasn’t sure he’d ever have with his autistic son. “How do you put a price on communications between a parent and child?” Etter asked.

Some students interact with Milo two days a week, others three days a week. Milo has served eight students this school year and in April is working with six.

HOW WAS MILO FUNDED?

Etter said Robokind has leased several hundred Milos, which can be leased by parents but mostly go to schools or other institutions. Kingsport City Schools leased Milo for about $8,000 the first school year, with payments the second and third year to be about $6,000. 

 

Jacki Wolfe, director of special education for KCS, saw Milo at a conference and applied for an Individuals With Disability Act (IDEA) grant from the Tennessee Department of Education for his first three years. Given the success of Milo at Washington this year, Wolfe said she is applying for funding for a second Milo, which would make the total cost next year about $14,000. He comes with a hard carrying case, Etter and Wolfe said, but has remained at Washington. The second Milo would be based at another school if the grant is approved, Wolfe said.

Etter said Milo comes with free updates of software periodically and is replaced every three years, and Wolfe said the fee includes needed repairs. Washington’s Milo works well most of the time, Wolfe said, although one of the arms sometimes gets a bit hung up and sometimes WiFi issues emerge between the robot and the iPads the teacher uses to control the robot and the student uses to interact with it. 

“We want to give our students the best quality of life we can given them,” Etter said before Will began a lesson on “responding to other people’s leave taking.”

 

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