Autism + Coding + Music in Singapore

I have just returned from a big week of work in Singapore — I was fortunate to have been invited to present workshops to individuals on the autism spectrum, their families, educators, service providers, therapists, psychologists, and members of the Singapore Ministry of Education, across a broad range of focus areas. I was also privileged to have been invited to deliver a fun ‘Today at Apple’ interactive workshop to the public as my final session of the week before flying back to Australia. I provide here a brief summary of some of the workshops I delivered and some of the resources I shared:

I arrived in Singapore on Sunday evening — the next day, I presented a variety workshops to those in the tech industry, to special education lecturers and families, traveling to sessions between Orchard Road, Fusionopolis and Tampines, to share the central thesis of my autism education work — mobilisation of the strengths and special interests of individuals on the autism spectrum that, when utilised in collaboration with the individual to build their personal competencies, are able to help them address functional and academic goals in all manner of powerfully creative ways.

I shared stories of my students and how they have used their own strengths and special interests across areas as broad as dance music, public telephone booths and breeds of dog to develop their personal competencies in ways that would not have been possible without taking such a strengths based approach. So many of the educational resources I have shared over the years — Minecraft in your Classroom, Explore Everything with Pokemon Go, for example — have shown how we can take an interest, like Minecraft and Pokemon Go, and mould it in all manner of ways so that it can fit in with the academic and functional goal driven agenda that we establish in partnership with the individual on the autism spectrum.

I met with the principals of some Singaporean special education schools who had previously read some of my work on special interests. We met at the beautiful Fernvale Gardens School, and one of the staff excitedly asked me, ‘Can you show us how to play Pokemon Go with our students, I’m a huge fan of the game!’ We had a laugh and I showed her that my work isn’t so much about playing the game, although it is a huge amount of fun, but rather my focus is on how we take the concept and content of a game like Pokemon Go and map it onto the goals we want our students to address — for example, a student who needs to address gross motor coordination and numeracy skills, we could create a mapping activity that builds on the concept of Pokemon Go (exploring the world, following maps, in order to catch Pokemon), where the student creates a map of their school on their iPad by walking around the school, taking photographs, sitting down and sketching the environment, and then building this map into a geocaching activity where they could hide little objects around the school for a friend to find, like an orienteering activity that they have created themselves by moving around the school and applying their numeracy skills in a creative way, all the while motivated by their underlying fascination with Pokemon Go.

Traveling to Lengkok Bahru to explore the Enabling Village I was thrilled to see universal design come to life in an integrated community space. The Enabling Village represents a fresh approach to social businesses and community building as it combines retail, lifestyle and training for members of the community in an all-accessible public space. I saw individuals on the autism spectrum engaged in all manner of work operations there, from logistical tasks through to social enterprise and creative productions, and everything in between. I saw custom made visual supports on all available surfaces, and I felt the overwhelming positivity and strengths based innovation that was part of the vision and implementation of the space. I was especially enamoured with the awesome makerspace that was part of an assistive technology area, I would have loved to have stayed, joined in and built all manner of new and wonderful inventions to help the universal design goals of the society continue to flourish. An amazing area if you have the opportunity to visit it.

With individuals on the autism spectrum, their families, educators, service providers and therapists, I shared workflows I have created using Choiceworks, Book Creator, Toca Boca and the Zones of Regulation to establish structured ways of helping individuals navigate the expectations of each day while providing platforms to explore social capacities and emotional regulation needs in virtual and augmented ways. We used Choiceworks to create visual schedules, incorporating drawings created by participants, photographs they took, and video models. We looked at how you could share these visuals across a class of students, and also share these visuals efficiently between home and school for maximum communication and opportunity for implementation across these settings. With Book Creator we created emotional regulation diaries for our students, and we created collaborative profiles of our students using scenes from Toca Boca. Participants created the most amazing examples and gave me a whole new level of insight into the manner in which you can use this technology to authentically represent and model quality of life markers for all individuals. I’m going to package up some of these workflows and share them globally soon.

After a week of these wonderful workshops and opportunities to meet and get to understand autism needs from so many new and inspiring perspectives, I traveled to Orchard Road on Thursday evening to present a ‘Today at Apple’ session I was invited to share with the public. The focus of my session was on exploring the link between autism education principles, coding and music, in a fun, accessible and interactive manner. My thesis is that so much of autism education is focused on the skill of task analysis — we look at a situation or a series of routines and, if the individual we are working with has a challenge with a skill or situation, we help them to debug the situation, to break a big problem into smaller components. This skill is one that we learn as special educators, and it is one that our students can acquire for themselves to help debug the glitches of daily life. This is also the core skill in coding, a fundamental part of computational thinking. When we help connect these skills together we see a highly personal approach to developing personal competencies around problem solving daily needs whilst building competencies in coding skills. To put these big ideas into play at the workshop I showed the link between creating visual schedules in Choiceworks and the coding activities we can complete in the Swift Playgrounds coding app.

To further engage these ideas in ever more creative and playful ways, we then used Skoog, the soft and accessible music performance cube that wirelessly connects to an iPad and allows you to play and compose music. We used Skoog to play Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, but then we showed how you can use Skoog to connect to Swift Playgrounds and actually code and create your own way for Skoog to operate. This is a wonderful thing to demonstrate to children (and adults!), how you can take the lid off a music app and start to tinker with the code beneath and create your own way for sound to be revealed. Watching students play around with Skoog, with Swift Playgrounds, with GarageBand, was such a delight. I met with parents and talked them through how to use Choiceworks, and the evening felt like a wonderful universal sandpit of inclusion and innovation. I learned that this workshop was the first accessibility focused ‘Today at Apple’ event that has been held globally, which is an incredible privilege to have been invited to deliver.

I am thankful to all the incredible individuals I was able to meet and work with across the week in Singapore, and I look forward to further sharing some of these ideas at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference this coming week in Sydney. I’m also going to package more of these ideas up and share them on my blog in the coming weeks. Thank you kindly for reading my summary of the previous week, and please do reach out and connect if you’d like to further discuss or collaborate with me on anything I’ve shared here.