Milo the robot is being used at Shady Lane Elementary School in Menomonee Falls to assist students with Autism to better understand and recognize emotions. Mike De Sisti
MENOMONEE FALLS - Logan Lucas always had trouble making friends.
Escorted by enthusiastic teachers, Logan's mother, Nicole Lucas, walked into school ready to meet her son's newest friend. Instead of a human, she was met with a plastic, smiling face — Milo the robot.
Standing at just 2 feet tall with funky chocolate brown hair and an outfit resembling a Power Ranger, there's more to Milo than meets the eye.
People with autism spectrum disorder have a difficult time understanding social cues such as facial expressions that most of us take for granted. Milo helps children understand what a smile or frown means, how to calm down and handle themselves when upset and develop lead taking skills, like saying hello to people.
"A lifelike robot," Nicole said in awe. "I had a doll like that when I was a kid but you had to move it yourself. But he is amazing and life-like and makes the angry face and the sad face."
Logan, 8, sustained a febrile seizure at 22 months old. His words were gone, and Nicole's sweet little boy was now aggressive and constantly agitated.
"Most of the scratches on my arms are from him and bites on the face," said Karen Richie, a special education teacher at Shady Lane Elementary School who works with Logan. "I had staff people that wanted to wear long sleeves. He was just so difficult to work with, initially."
But Logan is lucky to be attending Shady Lane. Only one other school in the state — Burleigh Elementary in Brookfield — has Milo.
Menomonee Falls Superintendent Patricia Fagan Greco participated in a workshop where she was able to see Milo in action. She immediately brought it back to the district, requesting a demo with Robokind, the company that created Milo. After the demo, the company agreed to let Shady Lane use the robot as a prototype to see the impact it could have on students.
"The progression he’s made since he started here... communication got better, bath and toileting got better," Nicole said of Shady Lane. "Then along came Milo, and he started waving to everyone and his eye contact started to get better."
At home, if his parents don't maintain eye contact while waving or speaking, Logan grabs their chins and forces them to do the action again and look at him, Nicole said.
A feature of Milo that Richie appreciates most is his ability to consistently teach the same skills over and over again.
"With people, you think you're saying the same thing but you're human — you're not," Richie said. "Consistency is what regulates kids with their world out of control, but this they can control because that person is doing it the exact same way with the feedback they need."
Logan sat patiently in front of Milo.
"Sometimes you can figure out how somebody is feeling by looking at their mouth," Milo tells Logan. "Most people smile when they feel happy."
The robot's cheeks draw up tight, making it clear he is smiling. Milo then asks Logan to copy his smile and after performing that task, he is asked to look at his iPad and choose the correct picture of someone showing happiness.
Milo speaks at a slower rate to help children process his lessons better. He has a chest screen where kids can interact with Milo. Richie said the nine kids who work with Milo love it because, even though she is sitting with them, using her iPad to tell Milo whether the child answered a question correctly, the kids always believe he is truly interacting with them.
Before Milo, Logan didn't interact with peers in his class. Now, students know how to get his attention and wave at him. And they always get a wave back.
Logan's mom can barely put into words what it means to see her little boy filled with happiness.
"It means the world to me to see how much he’s grown. He's happier, he gets his needs met and he's not so upset or so frustrated anymore," Nicole said.