By retrofitting ride-on vehicles and stuffed toys, the University of North Florida is helping children with disabilities be more engaged with their surroundings.
Not only can robotics provide multidisciplinary experience to researchers, but it can also help children with disabilities explore their environment and improve their overall well-being. Juan Aceros, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of North Florida (UNF), told us how the Adaptive Toy Project uses modified toy vehicles can help children with developmental motor disabilities.
UNF has been working with Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital since 2014 to change clinical practice and improve future independent functional prognosis, educational costs, and medical management for children with motor impairments. Such children would normally have limited engagement with their surroundings, leading to developmental delays, social isolation, and depression.
Ride-on toys can provide greater engagement. In addition, robot coaches can offer in-home therapy for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy through the use of “corrective” coaching and motivation. The interactive stuffed animal could monitor a child and provide guidance as to what the child should or shouldn’t be doing to enhance their outcomes.
How many toys is the Adaptive Toy Project able to refit each year?
Aceros: We are working on 10 to 12 toys each year. These are cumulative, as we have to maintain the toys that we created in previous years. We have been operating for four years, which means that we have a fleet of at least 40 toys to maintain.
Are there particular disabilities that the project is best suited to address?
Aceros: The technology we have developed is particularly tailored for children with complex medical conditions. We have worked with children with low cognitive abilities that have weak postural control, cortical visual impairment, and use of assistive devices such as medical ventilators.
Why is nobody else working on this?
Aceros: The technology must be customized to each child. In addition, most therapists and care providers prefer to wait until the children are older. This is an issue we are trying to change since most of the rapid brain development happens at an early age, and therefore this technology can have a great impact on the children’s quality of life.
Where will clinical trials fit in?
Aceros: Right now, we are not interested in clinical trials, since we are not curing a disease. We are allowing children with disabilities to develop in the same manner as children without disabilities would. This is done through play and independent exploration of their environment.
Who is paying for the toys?
Aceros: We are currently funded by NIH [the National Institutes of Health], internal grants, and community partners.
What have the students and other participants learned in the course of the project that was unexpected?
Aceros: The ability for students to collaborate across very different disciplines. Allowing students to interact and work in interdisciplinary teams early on in their college education allows them to see other disciplines without any preconceived notions. It is incredible to see engineering students talking in physical therapy terms and physical therapy students talking engineering terms.
Are there other types of toys or disabilities that would benefit from this approach?
Aceros: Yes, we are targeting mobility. However, we are also working on other toys that may help communication and cognitive development.
What does the Adaptive Toy Project still need — more resources, more awareness?
Aceros: Resources are always scarce. There is always a larger need that cannot be met. However, through our work, the community is becoming aware of this need and hopefully a change in clinical practice may produce the resources needed to reach every single child in need.