Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 00:07 UK

The robot guiding Tom's writing

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Tom Powis
Tom actually enjoys his homework

Tom Powis has trouble writing, fastening buttons and tying shoelaces.

The youngest of triplets, 11-year-old Tom's fine motor skills lag behind those of siblings Olly and Jack.

Despite the fact that he is academically above average, his handwriting problems mean he was often wrongly placed in a lower ability group.

His mother Gillian, a physiotherapist, explained that Tom's dyspraxia - an impairment or immaturity of the organisation of movement - has left him frustrated and struggling.

He has to continuously practise his writing and movement - exercises that he finds difficult, boring and tiring.

But a new robotic arm could hold the answer.

For the last few weeks Tom has been using a hi-tech robotic arm to practise his fine movement skills.

A general deficit in motor skills, affecting coordination and movement
Children with dyspraxia struggle with skilful, controlled actions, making simple daily tasks such as buttoning their coat or using cutlery much more difficult
Problems with handwriting mean they struggle with school work, which can mean they get left behind or lose self-confidence

The system has been developed and tested by a Leeds University team, working in collaboration with colleagues at the universities of Aberdeen in the UK and Indiana in the US.

It allows children with coordination problems to practise therapist-prescribed exercises at home using an interactive desk-top system, which can also monitor how they move, measuring things like smoothness and speed of movement.

The exercises involve children using a pen, guided by the robotic arm, to push objects along a 3D track shown on a computer screen.

And the techniques are already proving a big hit with Tom and the rest of the family.

"Tom is very keen to do the exercises," said Gillian.

"Even though it it is early stages it is encouraging movement patterns and is a fun way to do repetition.

"Everyone wants to have a go, including his brothers."

Home therapy

Lead researcher professor Mark Mon-Williams said one of the big benefits of the system is that it is portable and can be used at home.

Early trials of the robot have proved 'very promising' and Professor Mon-Williams said it could prove the answer to a shortage of therapists.

At least 5% of children - roughly one child in every classroom - are affected by dyspraxia.

The majority of these youngsters will not receive the level of help they need due to high demand on limited occupational therapy resources - some may be seen just once a year.

The triplets (l-r) Tom, Ollie and Jack
All three boys want to use the robot arm

"There aren't enough therapists available for the number of children who have movement difficulties in the UK," said Professor Mon-Williams.

"So increasingly we need to move towards assisted technologies to fill the gap."

He said that in the past it had been assumed that children like Tom would 'grow out' of their dyspraxia, but this has turned out not to be the case.

"In the past people thought, 'so you are not very good at handwriting or using cutlery, how much of a problem is that'?

"What we now know is that this is an enormous problem and that kids who have movement problems have difficulties.

"These kids really have a hard time and have a very poor outcome.

"But there is very good evidence that if you give these children therapeutic interventions that problems are decreased."

'Good fun'

Gillian, from North Yorkshire, said without this help that children like Tom can become frustrated and despondent by their lack of progress.

"Writing is so important," said Gillian, adding that once a child dropped behind it was often difficult to catch up.

"But the robot is really good fun. Children need the intense input and using the robot with visual feedback makes it fun to learn and easier to learn.

Robotic arm
The arm guides the child's movements

"The potential for this is huge."

Dr Yolande Harley, deputy director of Research at Action Medical Research, which has funded it, agreed.

"Providing therapy for children's coordination problems will bring all-round benefits, helping them to do better at school, make friends and enjoy physical activities and hobbies," she said.

Further tests are now planned to investigate how long the robot should be used to get the best outcome and which children could benefit the most.

The basic system, or a form of it, could be widely available by 2012.

Print Sponsor

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