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Becoming the Techie of Tomorrow: Students with ASD Learn Technology

There’s a lot of talk about why teaching kids technology, in particular programming, in today’s educational landscape is good for students. Nearly every other week there seems to be some major news announcement around STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), CS (computer science) and even IT (information technology) education. There’s also a current rush for computer science to be taught in all NYC public schools within the next ten years by Mayor De Blasio in a recent New York Times announcement. There are tons of technology camps and workshops for kids, apps to help students with the pre-cursors to learning programming, pre-college programs for gifted high school students and a bunch of start-up organizations who are putting out online programming curriculum step-by-step for the novice coders in the making. However, the question remains, can learning the tools of technology also be beneficial for youth on the autism spectrum?

According to Autism Speaks, advocates for those with autism estimate that up to nine out of ten adults with autism over age 21 are unemployed or underemployed. In today’s society, students with ASD are still confronted with biases, prejudice, and lack of opportunities. Less than half of students with disabilities graduate from high school and even fewer are privy to meaningful jobs. Unemployment rates are extraordinarily high for adults with autism and yet there are few training programs for young students geared to this population.

According to a November 2015 article from The Hechinger Report, “a growing group of educators sees technology work as an ideal field for some adults with autism and hope that tech can provide a career path and a means to financial security. At the same time, employers are beginning to see advantages to hiring people with autism, many of whom have strengths that lend themselves to working well with technology, such as being able to stay focused for long periods of time and to perform repetitive tasks with accuracy.”

Many children on the spectrum intuitively understand technology for these reasons and more. Computer code is predictable, rote and follows a set of finite rules – which makes it comfortable for many of these youth to work with. Individuals with ASD may be the best suited to code but students with disabilities who are school age have been consistently left out of this conversation. In addition, we know that students with ASD are big consumers of technology – how do we make them into producers of digital culture?

Gary Moore and Dan Selic from the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas, started a combination-training program and software company for individuals on the spectrum. According to The Verge, “NonPareil is just one of a handful of US organizations that are dedicated to training and employing autistic young adults — which are estimated to comprise 1 to 1.5 million Americans — who demonstrate valuable talents in technological realms.” The same with UltraTesting, a headhunter-type program for young adults with ASD in NYC. In San Francisco, Specialists Guild trains autistic interns as software testers and then works to place them in full-time jobs. Other organizations like AspiraTech in Chicago and Specialisterne, a Denmark tech organization that recently opened its doors in the US, is also helping to train young adults ages 18 and above with ASD in the tech industry.

Dr. Patricia Evans, a neurologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, says people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum often have an amazing ability to hyper-focus on a task. “They may really flourish at engineering-type tasks or computer design, where their interaction with people is somewhat limited,” Evans says.

At TechKidsUnlimited.org, a NYC-based tech educational not-for-profit started by a parent educator and her son who learns differently, technology classes are given to students in weekend and weeklong workshops to students on the spectrum as young as 7 up to age 19. Students who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, that have learning and emotional disabilities, can become technologists early on by learning alongside peers in supported workshops with a 3:1 student ratio and a social worker in every program. By creating, developing and sharing the tools of technology in a supportive and nurturing individualized environment, TechKidsUnlimited.org is working to change the paradigm for education and employment for young people with disabilities.

At TechKidsUnlimited.org youth learn open-source or free software in workshops and often continue experimenting with the program at home. For example, high support student J.L. learned the complex 3D game development software Unity in a recent TKU workshop where students were learning Unity to make a game which was then deployed to a 3D Oculus Rift headset. Staff noticed that by the second day of the workshop, he had gone way ahead of the other students who were still trying to master this complex and industry-standard software. When asked, he mentioned that he went home and downloaded the free software program onto his own computer (which took an hour!) he then opened his account and continued working on his project throughout the evening. This inspiring anecdote made it clear that students with ASD really have an innate ability and talent to learn and create with today’s tools of technology.

Media experts and educational technologists akin learning to program with learning to read way back in the Renaissance. They argued, should only the few – the monks and clergy – know how to read and henceforth, control the knowledge of the world? To rephrase: should only the smartest math students and most gifted science students hold the secret to programming? With the advent of the Gutenberg Press literacy rates soared just by placing the Bible into the hands of the masses. The same can be said for introducing students of the 21st century to programming where they then can become producers and makers. Getting students to “geek out” by teaching them to learn how to make games, apps, websites and more using step-by-step coding curriculum and intuitive software is gaining momentum. Students with autism spectrum disorder should not be ignored and left out of this conversation.

The hope is that in the next ten years, we’re going to have a lot more jobs in the tech sector to fill and students with ASD will become tomorrow’s gainfully employed if they are given the opportunity to explore tech as youth. By working with students on the spectrum ages seven and up to learn and use state of the art software and hardware, students with ASD can become the techies of tomorrow.

 

For more information, please visit TechKidsUnlimited.org, @techkidsu, facebook.com/techkidsunlimited, and http://www.lolaapp.com.

References

How high-tech jobs could solve the autism unemployment crisis. (2013, June 6). http://www.theverge.com/2013/6/6/4399468/autism-tech-jobs-unemployment-crisis-solution

More people with autism are getting training for technology jobs – The Hechinger Report. (2015, November 15). http://hechingerreport.org/more-people-with-autism-are-getting-training-for-technology-jobs/

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