Thanks to a program at UD that lets babies drive miniature robots, Pike Creek's Andrew Peffley, a spina bifida sufferer, certainly gets around.

Two-year-old Andrew Peffley isn’t letting spina bifida slow him down.

Cruising across his Linden Hill Village backyard in a specially-designed power chair, the toddler hoists a yellow, plastic bat and wacks a tee ball toward the fence.

Tee ball may be a simple game for a typical toddler, but for Andrew, who was born with an underdeveloped spinal cord and has paralysis in his feet and lower trunk, being able to play takes a little more work.

“When Andrew was born, my drive was to get him as physically capable as possible as quickly as possible so he would not miss out on life,” said Terri, Andrew’s mother.

Terri, a pediatric occupational therapist by trade, immediately began mentally fast-forwarding through her fourth child’s life, thinking about all the opportunities he’d miss if he followed the typical path of a physically disabled child.

Disabled kids tend to receive their first set of manual wheels at the age of 3 or 4, Terri explained, and miss out on the ability to explore their world on their own terms. But exploration is about more than finding the best route to the building blocks – it is directly connected to cognitive development, she said.

So when she heard about a program at the University of Delaware that put babies in the driver’s seats of mobile robots, her interest was piqued.

The specially-built devices, designed in UD’s early learning center, let infants control a joystick, which moves the miniature power chairs.

“His face just lit up when he started to move himself. His eyes got big and he looked around the room,” she said. “At that moment, I knew we needed to do this.”

The brainchild of Dr. Cole Galloway, the baby robot project started with a study of young kids moving joysticks and grew into a program that seeks to put physically disabled toddlers in miniature power chairs.

“What you hope for is a kid who is as independent and as much of a knucklehead as every other toddler,” said Galloway.

Toddlers can get into a power chair at 6 months, he said, using mobility to drive their IQ the same way typical toddlers develop.

Right now, the UD program is turning its focus to bio-driven devices, Galloway said, where toddlers will use their own movement to drive the power chairs, by wiggling a knee, for example. That way, kids can enjoy the benefits of mobility while they work on physical therapy, he said.

But for Andrew, the power chair by no means puts a period on his physical therapy.

“His life is very active,” Terri said. “He earns his nap everyday.”

The family has turned their home into a combination preschool and workout facility, Terri said, and Andrew spends a lot of his time working on treadmills and mats.

Andrew can walk with a walker and he’s also not afraid to use it, even though it takes a lot more work than the power chair, she said.

“My hope is that Andrew achieves his potential, just like my other kids; that he can be the best that he wants to be, that he’s happy and he’s just as much a contribution to life and to others,” Terri said.

Scroll down to watch YouTube videos of Andrew Peffley driving a robot.