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Nutley school uses robots to help students with autism

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An Essex County school is going high-tech to help students who have autism.

The Phoenix Center in Nutley is using a special robot teacher as part of its Robot-Human Interaction program. The small robot is designed to help students with special needs advance in their learning.

“Robot-Human Interaction, we envision it as a way for students to not only work on not only speech and language but also social skills,” says instructor Marc Restaino.

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The Phoenix Center is a nonprofit school for students with autism and other disabilities.  Students aged 5 to 21 come from 60 districts across New Jersey.

Instructors at Phoenix say that the students are thriving now that the robot, named Nao, is in the classroom. Educators say that Nao’s nondescript face and small size makes learning, communicating and interacting less intimidating.

The parents and students say that they agree that the robot has been a big help in the classroom. Eighteen-year-old Phoenix student Billy taught himself how to program the robot and now leads group sessions with younger kids.

“You can do a lot and do a lot with him, like make your own games, which I did,” Billy says.

The robot will teach the students a verity of things, such as yoga, speech therapy and other learning games.

“There is an unexplainable wonderment these kids have when they interact with him.  It keeps them wanting more, and keeps them learning and growing,” says speech therapist Mali Desantis.

The robot was purchased thanks to a grant from PSE&G. The utility company just awarded the Phoenix Center another $13,000 to expand the program and to buy another robot.

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