Robots for Therapy and the Lack of Empathy Myth

by Kim Wombles

“Empathy is one of those skills autistic children typically lack; this boy wasn’t supposed to be aware of his teachers’ frustration.”
“The New Face of Autism Therapy”

The idea that autistics lack empathy is one of the more pervasive myths out there, shared by some parents, far too many professionals, and the general public, and it’s dead wrong.  What some autistics may lack is awareness, but if they are aware of what’s going on, they can and do indeed feel empathy. They may react differently than socially accepted ways of conveying empathy, but it shows an appalling lack of neurotypical understanding of autistic people to continue to put this myth forward.  It is this reality that needs to be expressed and the lack of empathy myth that needs to be corrected:  autistics may express empathy differently and people should be aware of that.  Talk about a lack of theory of mind.  Why is it that this lack is so often apparent in “neurotypicals”?

This one sentence obviously stuck out enough, out of the long article regarding research into designing robotic therapists for autistic children that I’ve led with it, but there was much about the article that I found troubling.  As a science fiction geek, I think that robotic research is fascinating and important work, so it isn’t the idea of robots themselves that bothers me.  It’s some of the ideas expressed in the article.

“Experts debate the cause (the increase may simply stem from a greater awareness of the disorder) but agree that there is now a shortage of qualified therapists.”

Really?  This is so general as to be useless.  And the article will go on to perpetuate the myth that only “qualified therapists” can help an autistic child improve.  But let’s take this at face value:  there are a shortage of experts to work with autistic children.  Why would robots be better than training more people?

“And therapy is work.  To achieve results, a single child can spend 40 hours per week moving from one specialist to the next. ”

Perhaps.  But not necessarily.  Most people can’t afford that kind of intensive therapy, most don’t have access to it.  What do parents do when they can’t get ABA or any of the other “therapies”?  I believe that many parents dig into the books that are out there on treatments like ABA, floorplan, etc., and modify them for home use.  Many parents do the work themselves and see their children make tremendous progress.  Yes, I’ve also seen this self-education lead parents down woo trails and have them engage in dubious therapies and treatments.  But, I’ve also seen that parents with money to burn are as likely to piss it away on dubious therapists with their woo treatments.

The main point here is that this idea that a child must spend 40 hours moving from paid specialist to paid specialist in order to grow and progress is not based on scientific evidence, but it’s a good money making machine.  Autistic children need patient, deliberate, child-guided interventions that work at mitigating their weaknesses while fostering their strengths.

Much of the article is gauged to create a sense of need, of urgency to get autistic children to a therapist, posthaste.  This creates a market for the “automated therapist”:  ”Automated therapists would not only increase the amount of available therapy but would also make it available wherever a family happened to live.”

Again, it isn’t the idea of robots that disturbs me.  Nor is the idea of using assistive technology.  What bothers me is the idea that parents could in the future assume that their autistic child’s best hope of integrating into society comes from spending 40 hours a week with a robot instead of out in the community interacting with people.

Parents already abrogate too much of their responsibility in general with their children, letting schools, daycares, and other individuals be in charge of their child’s growth and development.  Turning it all over to a robot seems foolish at best.

What needs to happen is training for parents by qualified professionals on how to work with their children to provide appropriate consistency in discipline, to understand what are developmentally appropriate expectations.  And I’m not talking about just parents of autistic children.  Far too many parents today lack key critical thinking skills as well as knowledge regarding discipline and the need for consistency in how children are raised.  All children need clear guidelines that are consistently enforced.  All children need one-on-one instruction and interaction with adults.  Television, video games, and computer time aren’t going to do that.

Handing over our critical responsibilities to other people and potentially, in the future, to robots is not a good idea.  Have we gotten that lazy that we forget the very real truth that parenting children is work, our most important work, and that it requires a commitment of our time and our attention?

About the Author: Kim Wombles is the mother of three children on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog Countering…, and is reprinted here by permission.



8 thoughts on “Robots for Therapy and the Lack of Empathy Myth

  1. OMG Kim you are sooo brilliant
    I loved all your points but
    this one was such a shrewd astute comment .
    “The main point here is that this idea that a child must spend 40 hours moving from paid specialist to paid specialist in order to grow and progress is not based on scientific evidence, but it’s a good money making machine”

    • KWombles says:


      It’s one of the biggest surprises to me when I meet parents whose lives really are that hectic as they race from therapist to therapist. A lot of what they do with our kids we can do and do in a less rushed environment. All our children, issues or no issues, need our time and our attention and our consistency.

  2. chavisory says:

    Also, if one of the prime motivators of use of robots in place of human instructors and therapists is time and cost…why wouldn’t we be talking about using robots to replace public school teachers? After all, the vast majority of non-disabled children are believed by most people to require 35 hours a week or more of regimented, controlled instruction for 13 YEARS!(!!!)

    Unlike Kim, it sort of is the idea of robots that disturbs me…not robots in general, which are of course cool (especially the Hubble telescope and Mars rover). But robots for this specific purpose presumed to be good enough for autistic kids but not regular kids, seeming to largely stem from a popular falsehood that autistic people don’t need or want human connections, but can only be trained by rote to behave appropriately.

    Thinking back to my childhood, I needed a whole lot more support and understanding of a human variety–I can’t think of anything more depressing than being turned over to a robot for 40 hours a week…and then expected to go function in the human world.

    • KWombles says:

      Robots, in and of themselves, are not problematic; we’re in complete agreement that using robots with children to teach them empathy or other appropriate social responses instead of real people is.

      However, we already use video games and videos to teach. We have a cd that the kids used when they were younger to teach them to discern what emotions certain displays meant. A robot might conceivably do the same task, allow a child to continue that work alone, with the added bonus of being something a child can touch. However, given the chance to work with my children or giving them a robot to teach them, I’m gonna be there, as I was with the cd we used.

  3. Nikki says:

    I find it horrifying that so many autistic children are subjected to “treatments” that may actually be all wrong for them as autism can be so different in each individual, not to mention the child’s own personality. Autistic children should also have plenty of time to just “be” to play and enjoy life and do whatever it is that makes them happy, whether it’s getting lost in a pattern or playing with sand or water. I commend and encourage all those parents who think for themselves, know what works for their child and devise their own plan.

    As for the robot thing… sickens me so much I cannot even comment.

  4. D. S. Walker says:

    I agree that the parents of all children need to have critical thinking skills. I think we have been programmed to look to others for answers when we should first look to ourselves. I also think too many parents of all children do not parent like they should. Parenting also needs to include appropriate, safe, and legal use of the Internet, gaming consoles, cell phones, etc as children get older and too many parents do not do this.

    I also cannot help but reference this add. Do Not Hand Your Children Off to Robots, New Geico Ad Warns. I am not posting the link, but you can look it up with this information if you have not seen it. Now if marketers came up with this as a joke, why should parents of children on the spectrum not see it as one?

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