HELP­ING DUDE

A 6th-grader with rare ge­netic dis­or­ders re­turns to classes with help from a ro­bot

The Gulf Today - Time Out - - BUDS & BLOSSOMS -

When he was younger, Max Castillo’s school ex­pe­ri­ence was re­stricted to just a cou­ple of class­rooms. As he en­tered the sixth grade this year, his med­i­cal con­di­tion forced him to take all his classes at home.

At age 11, he was sorely miss­ing the com­pany of other stu­dents. Sev­eral ge­netic dis­eases have made him ex­tremely sen­si­tive to gluten and pet dan­der — even small par­ti­cles sus­pended in the air would make him sick.

But in Septem­ber, a 40-pound Beam ro­bot ap­peared on the scene at Cen­tral Mid­dle School in Ev­er­green Park, Ill., and now Max can be part of class­room dis­cus­sions from his home and see and hear what teach­ers and his peers are do­ing.

Now Max feels like he’s once again part of the stu­dent body.

“I re­ally feel like I am in school,” said Max, who lives with his fam­ily in Ev­er­green Park, Illi­nois. “I wasn’t able to go to lunch be­fore ... but now I’m able to ac­tu­ally go to lunch and talk with my friends.”

Max con­trols the ro­bot from his lap­top, di­rect­ing it from class to class with the help of an aide at the school. A video feed of Max’s face shows up on the ro­bot’s tablet screen, al­low­ing his teach­ers and peers to in­ter­act with him.

That daily, spon­ta­neous in­ter­ac­tion hasn’t been part of Max’s school rou­tine since last spring, when he be­came sick with a mi­graine, sen­si­tiv­ity to light, dizzi­ness, faint­ing and in­ally dis­lo­ca­tion of some joints. He hasn’t been to school in per­son since.

“The risk is es­pe­cially be­cause they cook all of the meals at that school and that he can be ex­posed to gluten al­most any­where in the school,” said Alya Castillo, his mother.

Castillo said Max is a gifted stu­dent but was con­stantly wor­ried about the al­ler­gens that might make him sick.

“There’s no re­place­ment for be­ing in school with your friends but he’s not as anx­ious as he used to be,” she said. “In the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment at school, he was hy­per-vig­i­lant, al­ways see­ing if there were crumbs. If some­one en­tered a room, he was very aware they en­tered and (won­dered) what did they bring with them.”

Castillo said with the ro­bot’s help, Max once again is so­cially en­gaged, learn­ing at the same pace as other stu­dents and par­tic­i­pat­ing in dis­cus­sions.

“He’s get­ting that mul­ti­fac­eted ap­proach you wouldn’t get in front of the com­puter,” she said.

Tim Ha­nen­burg, a math teacher at Cen­tral, said he makes sure the ro­bot was in his class­room so Max is vis­i­ble to all.

“It’s great that he can be part of class on a daily ba­sis and can be com­fort­able at home and not be ex­posed to any­thing he might be al­ler­gic to,” Ha­nen­burg said.

Veda New­man, the dis­trict’s di­rec­tor of Stu­dent Sup­port Ser­vices, re­searched ro­bots and found the Beam for $5,000, which was less than the cost of reg­u­lar teacher vis­its to the Castillo home.

Stu­dents have ad­justed well to his dig­i­tal pres­ence, said Camille Dickey, Max’s case man­ager at the school.

“He’s so ex­cited about be­ing able to be at school,” Dickey said. “He comes down the hall and the kids are like, ‘hey, Max’ and ‘hi Max.’

“I’m just re­ally happy for Max. He wants so much to be a part of things and he loves to learn.”

Sixth grade so­cial stud­ies teacher Michelle Rem­menga goes over an in-class as­sign­ment with stu­dents at Cen­tral Mid­dle School.

A class­mate at Cen­tral Mid­dle School in Ev­er­green Park, Ill.

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