How Scratch Changed the Life of Our Son with Autism

A parent reflects on her son’s social development through Scratch

By Shirli Singh

Ouch! My foot found another piece again. It was August, and the balmy air hung heavily around our house like a leech that wouldn’t let go. My spouse and I had just spent the last two hours searching for LEGO pieces, trying to pacify and explain to our hysterical eight-year-old son that losing a LEGO block is a small problem.

Our son, known as Megaman100 on Scratch, isn’t mega on words. He has high-functioning autism (HFA), which makes articulating his own thoughts and ideas challenging. He is humorous, yet unable to understand sarcasm or accomplish some of life’s most basic tasks.

We were exhausted. We needed something that might fulfill the building curiosities of an HFA child. A couple of months went by; things stayed the same. Then, I chanced upon an article about a programming environment for children. I have always love animals, especially cats. When Scratch Cat popped up on my research radar, curiosity got the better of me.

I first created a running cat project and showed it to Megaman100. He thought it was hilarious! Like many HFA children, auditory processing is not his strong suit. Scratch allowed me to demonstrate movement with minimal words and great visuals. It enabled my son to use his strength in visual processing to learn a new skill with little to no frustration.

One of his first Scratch projects was “ants.” It was a basic navigation game where the player must control a number of ants without letting them bump into one another. My son had grown fascinated by ants after a field trip, but I didn’t understand why until much later.

My son is tactile-defensive and uncomfortable with face-to-face physical contact. Even a simple hug is hardly tolerable. Reflecting on his project, I realized that the ants represented the swarms of people he encounters in his daily life and his desire to have the ability to navigate upstream and downstream.

Scratch soon became a tool for Megaman100’s understanding of the social world. He spent inordinate amounts of his free time exploring other Scratchers’ projects, especially those featuring an anime character named Mega Man.

Technoboy1, JPToast14, and Megaman100 collaborated on an 8-bit platform game.

The biggest breakthrough came when Megaman100 received an invitation to collaborate on another Scratcher’s project. This Scratcher, Technoboy1, was developing a multi-level platform game with a Mega Man-inspired character named Technoboy. Megaman100 had been following Technoboy1’s studios and eagerly accepted.

Soon, other Scratchers came onboard. They organized themselves into various developer roles based on their skill sets. Through his work with Technoboy1 and other Scratchers, Megaman100 developed a quiet confidence about himself and his technical abilities. He even developed original 8-bit art characters, namely Kai the Hedgefox and Sue the Rabbit.

After collaborating with others, Megaman100 created his own original characters, Kai the Hedgefox (left) and Sue the Rabbit (right) using 8-bit art.

Scratch’s LEGO-like environment is non-intimidating and a comfortable space for logical thinkers. Scratch is literally Megaman100’s IDE (integrated development environment — referring to a software suite that consolidates the basic tools developers need to write and test software), where he can extrapolate likely human interactions from Scratch programming projects.

Megaman100's social pragmatic challenges make direct communication with people a fumbling endeavor. Communicating in the Scratch online community, in contrast, gives him time to form his replies without the intensity of time and face-to-face constraints.

Although life continues to be a maze filled with Easter eggs, together, we have found courage and focus. To quote one of our favorite poets, James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

We were afraid of uncertainty before, but Scratch has given us hope, unbridled optimism, and a chance for a better tomorrow.

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