Thursday, April 17, 2008

What I learned from Squawkers McCaw

Over the past decade, a number of studies have investigated the educational and therapeutic value of robotic toys for autistic children. Kirsch’s 1999 Affective Tigger study explored the development of recognition of emotion in typical children. Kirsch also theorized that the interactive plush toy might meet the needs of autistic children for repetition and consistency, allowing easier learning of emotion recognition.

A number of studies have focused on Robota, a series of robot dolls capable of mimicking arm and head movements, as well as speech response. Kaspar is a child-sized humanoid robot developed by the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire. Kaspar evolved from the Aurora Project, led by Prof. Kerstin Dautenhahn at Herfordshire.

And what of Squawkers McCaw, a “regular” toy for autistic and non-autistic children (and adults)? I have semi-seriously considered proposing research on Squawkers’ suitability as a starter communication device for non-speaking children. Capable of storing 18 customized phrases, playable at the touch of a button, Squawkers is friendlier than The Special Life’s Go Talk, not to mention less “special.” Squawkers might do a better job than a Smart Speak in allowing the user to appear “indistinguishable from his peers.” (Unless the peers are around my age, that is.) Of course, to be practical, the parrot’s memory would need to be increased to store more words and phrases, but the current Squawkers might be useful in assessing whether such a device would be appropriate for a particular child.

The appeal of Squawkers McCaw as AAC is in the design. His movements and sounds are realistic enough to engender something very much like empathy. Am I kidding? Not really. My feelings for Squawkers are well known among my acquaintances, online and otherwise. Consider the implications of this:

Take one person prone to obsession, already enamored of toy talking birds. Add one Squawkers McCaw. Soon, the person wants to talk about, write about, spend time with Squawkers McCaw ad nauseam. Other people are fed up, or at least getting bored with this. This only serves to make the bird more important. (Threat of alienation increases need for sameness found in comfort object.)
From here, there are several directions this could go. Assembling a large flock of siblings for Squawkers is not economically feasible. Fortunately, this interest has taken a promising turn in this particular case, expanding to embrace Macaws in general. This is where I see some (anecdotal) evidence for robot toys as agents of empathy.

I started looking at parrot rescue sites. So many beautiful birds out there have been taken for pets and then abandoned. Some have been abused. It is truly heartbreaking to see this. There are a few good places, though, that are working to help them. The one I liked most after looking them over is called Feathered Friends Forever. One of the largest parrot rescue facilities in the US, they adopt out some birds (No selling and no breeding!) and house many others permanently. The birds live in large outdoor flights and in a park open to the public. You can see some of them here. The one I chose to help sponsor is called Sky. Squawkers McCaw is pleased with this development.
The macaws pictured here are Birdly, Sky and Jonah from the FFF site.


  1. Yes, re: less "special", it occurs to me that Squawkers is a heck of a lot less expensive than other robotic toys that are developed specifically to be therapeutic -- i.e., "Paro", the robotic baby seal, who sells for thousands. Interesting how the medical model jacks up the price of everything, even toys.

    For anybody interested in the circumstances and philosophy behind parrot rescue, Burgess and I would like to also throw in props for the Avian Welfare Coalition:

  2. It will never cease to amaze, and distress, me over how people can treat other creatures. I'm going to look into helping the rescue site, I've spent most of my $$$ on cat rescue and just recently started doing some volunteer work for a rabbitt haven.

    thanks for all this info

  3. Awesome! That is pretty exciting. Would you ever adopt one for your pet?

  4. Marla,

    See, the problem with that is that I tend to stay pretty busy and the cats I already have would probably tell you I'm not such a great "mom." And cats are low maintenance. Birds are very high-maintenance pets, and that's how so many of them end up being neglected. People don't realize just what they are getting into.

    So while I enjoy birds very much, I will have to do that from a distance. (Hi, Burgess!)

  5. My family had a parakeet when I was a kid, and I kept trying to convince my mom that it felt neglected in its cage and would be much happier if we let it fly around the house. She never was persuaded, though.

  6. Birds, especially parrots, need socialization even more than they need flying. They can be about as needy as people in that regard, and yeah, a lot of folks fail to realize that they're not just a "decoration" or something that's supposed to look pretty in a cage and say cute stuff. In fact, most parrots don't talk . . . but nearly all of them scream. And many bite, too. Especially when -- surprise! -- they're denied the socialization they really, really, really need.

  7. Bev -- I think we were posting comments at the same time, 'cept mine was slower. Please read:


  8. They need socialization and intellectual stimulation as well.

    A lot of them have reasoning abilities that I've always seen (through the usual faulty means, "mental age" and all that crap) compared to the average 5-year-old human.

    They are also, except for budgerigars, wild animals.

    I'm living with a Quaker parrot right now temporarily, and he's really hard to take care of. It's the same commitment as taking care of a human child. And I don't mean the way people feel like cats or dogs are their children. It's not about the closeness of the bond, it's about the fact that you've got an animal who doesn't have millenia of human socialization and communication and general evolving-beside-humans inside his genes, and who needs the level and in many ways the kind of intellectual stimulation that a human child needs, and needs help in doing that and in adjusting to a human environment.

    They like living with humans, but they can't just be kept in cages 24/7. That's like keeping a child in a playpen all day. Cages are for sleeping, for protection, and for time-out, but they're not for living in all the time. And if you do have to leave a bird in a cage, he needs stimulation, like keeping the radio or a TV on for him as well as plenty of things to do in there.

    Parrots have been known to become depressed, develop self-injury, and even in extreme cases commit suicide if neglected and lonely.

    They also often have better social skills than the average adult human as far as I can tell. They are very perceptive and very capable of social manipulation and other things.

    I've watched a person spend all day doing only things for the parrot and he manages to work it out so that she never notices that everything she's doing is his plans and not hers. Until she's lost the entire day to it. He also is fully capable of the sort of deliberate selective hearing that children develop around their parents (the kind where "don't do this" makes the parrot play dumb and "if you don't do this, I'll get you candy" suddenly makes the parrot not do whatever it was). He also has a fairly trademark way of showing he's trying to be sneaky, which is that he plays with his foot over and over while trying not to show that he's eyeing some kind of Trouble with a capital T.

    (Right now he's in the other room saying "Dammit, dammit, dammit" because he got put there after chewing a mouse wheel to pieces -- something he only played with his foot around while my friend was looking, and when she turned around to help me with something he rapidly went for the mouse wheel...)

    They also are capable of using words quite appropriately and are often very acutely aware of when they are being talked down to or expected to perform for people. (Whether they mind this depends on their personality, much like humans I guess.) Some have learned to sound out words from letters.

    There is no way I could be the primary caregiver of a parrot, any more than I could raise a kid right now. The fact that most people aren't aware the level of commitment it takes, or anything about parrots, is why you see so much abuse and neglect. They want a pretty little talking bird but they also want the bird to be perfectly happy and docile about being treated like a mindless object and stuck in solitary confinement at all times except the time when they get to "perform".

    Taking a parrot into your home is somewhat like agreeing to adopt a tiny chimpanzee with feathers and a beak. We're just more used to parrots so we forget they're super-bright wild animals no less than chimps etc. And we have a lot of prejudices about the intellects of tiny creatures as well.

  9. Thank you Evonne and Amanda,
    This is important information that people considering bird adoption need to hear.

    And that really cracked me up about the parrot cursing after he got put in time out! :)

  10. Great idea Bev, sponsoring the birds! Like how people who want a dog or cat but can't have one, volunteer at the animal shelter.

  11. I presume y'all know about Alex?

  12. And this is probably old news, but it's new to me:

    Living near Chicago, I'm kinda limited these days in the kinds of pet stores I can frequent (I miss my family-owned store in my hometown!), and when it's time to buy an emergency pet product or something I can't order online, my choices are Petco and PetSmart. Because of the story above, I will be choosing PetSmart from now on. (Only problem is, my husband and a Quaker parrot named Squacky who is currently for sale at Petco have fallen in love with each other. Squacky dances with my husband and calls for him when he tries to leave; it breaks my heart! The odds are very high -- VERY high -- that whoever purchases Squacky will neglect him. Yet buying him from Petco will be supporting the bird mills! I'm so conflicted!!)

    I've also noticed that the cages of the birds for sale at our Petco have no more than one toy apiece. And I have a feeling that if I say something I'll get the old "Well, toys are expensive and can't be transferred from bird to bird" deal. Should I . . . donate new toys? Is there any harm in that?

  13. Help Bev. I actually dared to jump out of my routine of going thru your posts sequentially and landed on your main page to see if you had contact info. I couldn't find it. So, I know this is OT. but I was on Stitcher looking for an autism podcast that isn't only about kids, puzzle pieces, cures, epidemics, self-pity and catastrophes. You probably know what I'm going to say next. I drew a blank. It was so frustrating! I haven't checked YouTube channels yet. I hereby seek your valued advice. Thanks Bev!


Squawk at me.
Need to add an image?
Use this code [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]