This Robot Isn't Just A Toy, It's A Friend And Learning Device For Kids With Autism

"We aren't just trying to build a toy, but a friend."

April is National Autism Awareness Month. To celebrate and bring awareness throughout the month, we will be highlighting positive stories we love about people with autism, as well as the stories of their friends and families.

With its different colors, vibrations, and cute face, Leka might look like a fun everyday toy, but it's so much more than that. It's a multi-sensory smart toy set, developed for those with autism or other developmental disorders. It is meant to help its users play, interact, learn, and enrich their lives. 

Kids are able to play spin, roll, and touch different parts of Leka. The multi-sensory toy moves around, vibrates, and plays music. Its "face," or display screen, can also show different photos and emojis, which help kids stayed engaged.



Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka
Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka

The inspiration for Leka came when founders Ladislas de Toldi and Marine Couteau were in school. "In 2011, I was in university with my friend, and now co-founder, Marine Couteau," de Toldi told A Plus via email. "During that time, we became very close with our design teacher, and when we learned that his son had been diagnosed with autism, Marine and I wanted to do something to help. We naturally started working with our teacher to develop a toy that would both support his son's communication and help him learn and develop. From there, the concept of Leka was born!"

When it came to designing Leka, de Toldi explained it was important to create a customizable toy given that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a varied condition that can manifest itself in different ways, including sensory sensitivity, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and more.

"During the design process, we wanted to think about how we could make one product that would be customizable for any child. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, we wanted our product to be beneficial for children on both ends of the spectrum, as well as children with different developmental disorders such as Down syndrome," de Toldi stated, "We ended up creating the device to be both autonomous and controlled by an app, so that caretakers would have the option to use Leka in the way that benefits their child best."

"We are also continuing to develop Leka as a communication tool between parents, caregivers and therapists with our monitoring platform. The tool will keep track of the child’s progress every time he or she uses Leka, so parents and therapists can easily keep track of how the child is advancing."

The founders took an evidence-based approach during the two years Leka was in development, "validating its progress through testing and the scientific community." 

From there, they launched an Indiegogo campaign in May 2016. The successful campaign saw Leka double its initial target in crowdfunding. Because of this, the brand was able to quickly advance its development process, releasing its closest prototype to the final product.

"The success of our Indiegogo campaign only increased the team's motivation to deliver the best product possible to our loyal backers, as well as families across the globe who could benefit from Leka," de Toldi said in a press release. "We're overjoyed to show the world what we've been pouring our hearts into for the past six months, as we begin the next steps to bringing Leka to market and enriching the exceptional lives of exceptional children, and their families, around the world."

Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka
Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka

The final device has autonomous features, plus it allows users to connect it to other devices. The features include different sensors, which allow kids to engage with it independently. The brand writes, "The robot's responsiveness aims to help children better understand social cues and improve their interpersonal skills." 

As for connecting tech, Leka plans to unveil an updated iOS mobile app with Bluetooth connectivity and four educational applications. The application will allow groups such as parents, therapists, siblings, and more to enjoy the experiences together. Furthermore, there will be applications that will allow kids to play and learn by themselves.

When asked by A Plus what it's like for the founders to see kids using Leka, de Toldis states that it can be emotional. "It is an overwhelming experience to see children use Leka. We see their faces light up in a way that's so different from their interactions with humans and it is truly amazing."

He adds, "We have seen families who use Leka together to bring siblings closer and create a bond that was much more challenging, if not impossible, to create before the toy."

"We have seen children complete tasks they were never able to succeed in prior to using Leka. Most of all, we have seen children gain confidence in themselves and develop their social and emotional capabilities. One time we taught a little girl with Down syndrome how to play hide-and-seek with a little boy on the spectrum who was non-verbal. They both used Leka as bridge of communication and interaction to play and learn together."

The creators hope Leka will help spread awareness about those with autism while helping children develop. 

"Our main goal in creating Leka was to help these exceptional children live the exceptional lives they deserve. We want to reduce the learning inequalities that so many children with developmental disorders face on a daily basis and we think Leka, as a communication intermediary, is capable of doing just that," de Toldi wrote, "We also hope to educate the public about autism, and create an environment in which people are more understanding and thoughtful toward people with autism and developmental disorders." 



"We aren’t just trying to build a toy, but a friend."

Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka
Courtesy of Ladislas de Toldi/Leka

As for what's next for the company, they hope to integrate different things into Leka as technology advances. De Toldi cites artificial intelligence (AI) as holding great potential. "It would be very cool to see Leka have the ability to talk to children and respond to their questions and actions in a similar way as a human," he explained.

Furthermore, the brand is working to get Leka into schools. De Toldi says, "We would love for Leka to be a major component of special education and we are currently working on creating a package to make that happen."  

Check out the video below to find out more about Leka: