Yes, machine-assisted mobility training helps the youngest of the disabled learn to get around—but it also helps them think and communicate faster, and that means better emotional development. UD researchers are showing how.
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And there’s more to it beyond developing motor skills. “We know that children with mobility issues also have trouble with cognition and social interaction, whether or not there is an accompanying brain disorder,” Galloway says. “But what if, by providing mobility development, you also kick-start their brain activity to improve both cognitive and social skills?”
That may be possible.
Ten years ago, Sunil Agrawal, lead investigator for UD’s mechanical engineering-robotics lab, became interested in mobile robots. “Can I design a machine using computers and sensors to do what humans do?” Agrawal wondered. After six years, he and his team designed several prototypes, but they were too small to be tested by adults.
Four years ago, Agrawal met Galloway. He asked if Galloway had any application for his machines. Galloway was working with infants small enough to fit them, so Agrawal created a seat for the child and a joystick that both drove and directed the young pilots. “We found we could teach these young children to operate the robot within six weeks, with only two or three training sessions per week of 20 minutes duration each,” says Agrawal.
“The joystick receives feedback from the robot’s sensors and pushes back when the child is heading in the wrong direction. Eventually, the child learns to move in the proper direction on his own, and the resistance that was provided can be eliminated to demonstrate the child is ready to operate the robot safely on his own.”
Several studies were done using children from UD’s Early Learning Center’s daycare program. In 2007 Galloway, Agrawal and another associate published a study countering a common belief that children under 24 months were not candidates for power mobility. By using Agrawal’s robots, children could, beginning as infants, learn power mobility. A university study last year suggested that mobility training also had a positive effect on socialization, overall daily living and driving performance. It concluded that a 20-month-old child with spinal muscular dystrophy improved both cognitive and communication skills that exceeded calendar time. For the six months that the child used the robot, cognition showed a seven-month gain. Communication showed a 13-month gain.
“We’ve known for years that mobility is a causal factor in the cognitive explosion that takes place between the ages of six months and one year,” Galloway says. “Lack of mobility in children with disabilities leads to what is known as learned helplessness. Among other issues, that makes mobility, in my view, a human rights issue.”
Michael Gamel McCormick, former head of UD’s Center for Disability Studies, now the dean of the College of Education and Public Policy, says infant brains “are a mass of neurons making connections through exploration. By crawling and walking, babies can make more complex connections through auditory and visual stimulation, all enhanced by mobility.”
Page 3: Aye, Robot, continues...