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Future of Work: A Case for Robot Caregivers: Autism

1 in 68 American children fall somewhere along the autism spectrum. That is a lot and it is increasing.

School resources are overwhelmed trying to respond to this crisis and the number of expertly trained caregivers cannot keep up with demand. At the same time parents feel helpless and frustrated because they do not know how to help their child.

It is a problem of the first order. It is the type of problem that Silicon Valley (in the generic sense) should be trying to address. Helping solve this problem is more interesting and more disruptive than trying to help people find the perfect pizza restaurant.

Those afflicted with Autism exhibit a number of symptoms but a significant one is a decreased ability to properly communicate in social situations. This social inability hurts them at school and the workplace. It creates a barrier between them and others. It is challenging for everyone involved including parents, teachers and employers.

My nephew has Autism and it is heartbreaking to watch him try and “fit in” with kids his own age (6) and with the adults around him. The school he attends is trying to “mainstream” him, but they also have to provide additional school space and supervision for when that doesn’t work.

Can robots help? I believe that they can.

Imagine a 3 foot tall robot with anthropomorphic features that is programmed to interact with the Autistic child in a non-threatening and entertaining manner all while teaching that child how to interact in various social situations? Would that be effective? I honestly can’t imagine a scenario where something like that wouldn’t help. A research group in Singapore (link here) is attempting to do just that.

And this is something that investors and entrepreneurs should be looking at because the market is absolutely huge.

1 in 68 kids means that about 1.5% of American children have Autism. In pure back of the napkin terms that means that about 915,000 (1.5% of 61+- million) individuals under the age of 17 have the disability. Without digging too deep into the stats let’s just make a very general assumption that each case represents one family (I assume that many families have more than one child with autism – but I am just trying to get a very broad idea of the market). If robots cost $3,000 and only 60% of the families purchased them that would mean a market just in the home $1.6 billion. I actually think it would be bigger because I assume that income will not be a barrier due to the fact that they can be leased and for those that cannot even afford a monthly payment I think that insurance and other programs will step in. And this is just for the home. It does not take into account the tens of thousands of schools and hospitals and summer camps that will benefit from the technology. And of course, Autism is not just a disability that afflicts Americans, it is a global problem.

We are entering a brave new and exciting world!

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