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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Robot shows children how to move
By Gill Higgins
Health correspondent, BBC News

The latest in robotic technology could help thousands of children with movement disorders.

The robot arm
The robotic arm helps children's co-ordination

A team of scientists in Aberdeen is putting a robotic arm to the test in the hope of giving children more control and better co-ordination.

Robotic technology is evolving fast.

The latest improvements have been harnessed in a device that can act as a guiding hand to children with movement disorders, like dyspraxia.

Dyspraxia is a term used for children with a variety of symptoms, characterised by lack of motor co-ordination and problems reading, writing and playing.

The device looks quite simple, but it is hoped it will have a powerful effect.

The child uses the device in a computer game which involves simple tasks such as following the outline of shapes, to competing in cars around a racing track.

In each case, the robotic arm acts by allowing the correct movements, but discouraging any jerky or incorrect ones.

Its action has been described by researchers as like "a mother's hand".

'We needed another way'

Lead researcher Dr Mark Mon-Williams said: "We know practise helps improve skills.

The robot arm
I have lots of ideas but I can't put them into words
Matthew Alton, 11

"For some reason some children don't learn the basic control skills so we've got to start them practising good movement.

"Therapists don't have the time to do this. The robotic arm can help children practice these specific skills".

There is a need for another way of helping children with movement problems."

Matthew Alton, who is 11 and lives in Aberdeen, suffers from a mild form of the condition, but it still affects many aspects of his life.

Without good balance, he cannot ride a bike, and he cannot play football properly.

Without good hand co-ordination, he finds it difficult to use cutlery, and his writing is very slow, and can be messy, holding him back in school.

He said: "It makes me feel really bad about myself because I'm behind in some subjects.

"I have lots of ideas but I can't put them into words and write them down".

'Something extra'

His mother Jane realised he needed help.

But they faced a wait of 18 months just for his first appointment.

We're only able to offer a small number any intervention.
Anne Brockman, Royal Aberdeen Children's Hospital

She said: "We very much felt in limbo and not sure what to do. The length of time we waited was too long."

At the Royal Aberdeen Children's hospital they recognise this problem.

One in 20 children has some kind of movement disorder, but there are too few occupational therapists to help.

Head of the department Anne Brockman said: "There's a national shortage.

"Lots of children are referred, and we're only able to offer a small number any intervention.

"It would be really helpful if we could offer something extra."

That is what the team are hoping they'll be able to do with the robotic arm.

It would be less labour intensive than therapy as several children could use these devices supervised by one person.

Everyday skills

The robotic arm is currently undergoing tests to see if it really does make a difference.

The charity Action Medical Research has provided funding for 20 children to be trained, each for six months, when their responses will be measured.

It is hoped their jerky movements will be made smoother, allowing for a more rapid, and correct response.

This will hopefully translate into an improvement in everyday skills such as handwriting and using a knife and fork.

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