The Power of Memes: The Pepper Robot as a Communicative Aid for Autistic Children - Memesby@memeology
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The Power of Memes: The Pepper Robot as a Communicative Aid for Autistic Children - Memes

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This paper explores the efficacy of robot-assisted therapy in promoting social and communication skills in autistic children, based on qualitative analysis.
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This paper is available on arxiv under CC 4.0 license.


(1) Linda Pigureddu, University of Turin, Italy, [email protected];

(2) Cristina Gena, Dept. of Computer Science, University of Turin, Italy, [email protected].


The Project


Conclusion and References


The qualitative analysis of the material produced during the project underlines that there is a linguistic barrier between Pepper and the children because Pepper's dialogue system was written by adults, while children talk through a vocabulary peculiar to their age. What’s more relevant is that the participants integrate the use of memes into everyday conversations, which is quite surprising, even considering that’s common practice between teens and pre-teens, if we consider the textbook definition of Autism Spectrum Disorders, since this requires the ability to master the underlying social context in the information presented just as a couple words-image matched through, usually ironic and sarcastic, rhetorical figures based on pop culture.

Although communicating through memes offers a few advantages that directly compensate for the difficulty autistic people face while entering social situations, such as:

● Regulate using echolalia in stressful and anxious situations, such as encountering people in public spaces, hidden in the repetition of a sound considered more socially acceptable, such as the meme’s catchphrase.

● Transmission of disambiguous information: Memes, being a word-image pair, provide access to a concise and simplified non-verbal communication system that implies a broader meaning that

cannot be misunderstood by those who know the sharing context. It provides a more accessible

and comfortable way to express a concept than the risky natural communication that can cause


● Sense of social belonging: the nature of a meme is that its information shared widely within online communities. This creates a sense of belonging to the social group of people who participate in certain platforms and applications. When a child enunciates a catchphrase, he assumes that his audience knows the meme from which it is taken and therefore understands what image it should be associated with, even though it is not shown (and vice versa). Receiving a response from the rest of the group constitutes an implicit expression of consent and confirmation of belonging to the same social group (those who know the meme), establishing mutual understanding and a friendly connection with others.

● Expression of emotions: memes are concentrated and concise formulas for the exposition of much broader, complex, and layered concepts, which, typically, autistic people find difficult to identify and express. This extreme simplification in a word-image pair allows children to identify their moods, more easily represent their emotional experiences, and communicate concepts that would be too complex for them to explain through traditional verbal language.

In the same way, these children usually communicate with each other using gestures referencing the images or videos presented in popular memes, expecting the group to catch the related tagline to understand what they’re trying to express.

The usage of memes was so common during the laboratory that therapists suggested creating a list of “forbidden words”, updated at the beginning of every encounter, containing all the words so overpronounced to be considered distracting from the children themselves. That ended up being a collection of meme catchphrases the participant admitted using so frequently to be an impairment to maintain a correct level of participation during the activities.

Updating the list at the beginning of every session prompted the children to be more self-conscious about their habits and what they found distracting; it also encouraged them to improve their vocabulary and communication skills to express themselves without using those memes. On the other hand, introducing this activity before starting with the program for the day helped them settle into the laboratory, slightly extending the familiarization process begun in the welcome phase. Taking advantage of echolalia, as the children's relief associated with the repetition of words and sounds that are reassuring to them, is comforting for them and makes them aware they are entering a safe space, where they will receive help to improve their skills in a way that understands the peculiarity of their minds and free of any prejudice.

According to this observation, in future applications, Pepper should be able to understand the meaning behind gestures, especially basic ones, such as hand raising, to catch non-verbal inputs, and when the children are referencing a meme and how to implement those into the dialog, to fully understand what is being communicated by the children and increase the perception of trust, credibility, and belonging to the same social group, helping the children to see Pepper as their peer and effectively use it in the role of mediator. To implement this kind of information, it can be useful to involve a group of teenagers and pre-teens, or a content creator who specializes in making content for this age group, in the process of making the robot persona and creating the dialogues.

Another way to do this can be by leveraging machine learning strategies already planned to improve the quality of conversations, allowing the robot to learn directly from the children participating in the project, who demonstrated to be interested in helping with improving the robot and explaining their slang, recording the implicit meaning of a pun or a gesture for future reference and usage during the interactions.

The use of machine learning also opens up the opportunity to dip into the websites most frequently used by this age group, such as social networks and video game forums. This solution can be helpful to keep Pepper’s vocabulary updated but is certainly more challenging due to the amount of data collected by this platform and the difficulty in designing a strategy to make the robot understand the subtext of the meme and to keep up with the evolution of the trends, even considering the possibility of relying on online databases that are updated frequently and that aim precisely to explain the meaning of this type of content, such as

Finally, it is important to consider that the robot will interact with children, augmenting the risk of mistakenly implementing inappropriate content into the robot, considering that the majority of the information stored online is not child friendly.