De’coding’ autism stereotypes
UBC students have launched ambitious, one-on-one workshops to help children on the autism spectrum to program, problem solve, and connect.
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
When Bahar Moussavi arrived at the University of British Columbia, starting a non-profit wasn’t the first thing on her mind. Her days were busy enough completing a combined major in Computer Science and Microbiology and Immunology. But over coffees with friends, an ambitious ‘side’ project began to take shape.
“We’d all gone to high-school with kids with special needs, and we saw them get discouraged when it came to certain activities, like coding,” says Moussavi. “But what if we could offer something more personalized?”
With backgrounds in computer science, public health and neuroscience, the friends (fellow UBC students Mohamed Aly, Mickey Torio, Felicia Chan and Hussein Hatim El Afifi) focused on developing coding workshops for children on the autism spectrum.
“People said ‘You’re a student, you don’t have much time to do this!’ But we said we’d make time,” says Moussavi.
They also needed advice. They consulted UBC professors for pointers on how to run the workshops and developed a lesson plan. They had no money, so they sold donuts to bootstrap the program. Last summer, they found a room through the University Neighbourhoods Association where they could pilot their workshops. And they picked a name for themselves: Create Opportunities and Define Education (CODE).
This January, Moussavi and friends moved the CODE workshops to the Pacific Autism Family Network offices in Richmond, which will provide a more permanent base of operations.
Filling a gap
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that affects an individual’s ability to communicate and interact. There’s no single portrait of a person with autism, just as there’s no single portrait of a Canadian.
“Sometimes a person will have an experience with an individual on one end and assume the whole community is like that,” says Jenna Christianson-Barker, Director of Adult Programming at the Pacific Autism Family Network. “We explain autism as a pie chart. You may be good at coding but struggle at something else. You’re not limited as a whole.”
Despite this, stereotypes — both benign (autism as the mark of ‘genius’) and negative — persist, and most autistic individuals are underemployed. However, in recent years, there’s been increased interest in teaching adults and children on the autism spectrum how to code.
It has been suggested that people on the autism spectrum may have skills that align well with those needed in coding, including attention to detail, pattern recognition, or an affinity for repetitive tasks. The idea seems to be gaining traction. SAP launched its Autism at Work program in 2013 and in 2015 Microsoft unveiled a pilot program geared towards workers on the spectrum. In Los Angeles, Coding Autism successfully crowdfunded its first web development boot camp last year.
But the Vancouver scene had gaps. The Pacific Autism Family Network organized coding camps for adults, but not for children. At UBC, computer scientists Paul Carter and Kurt Eiselt taught ten workshops geared towards youth in 2015, but the effort proved difficult to sustain.
Then Moussavi knocked on Carter’s door, wondering if a new series of workshops was worthwhile, and feasible.
“She asked me ‘What do you think?’ And I said ‘It’s a fantastic idea.’”
Hardware surgeons and problem solvers
Students in the CODE workshops are taught computer science concepts, such as conditionals and loops, and are introduced to visual coding tools like Scratch. Students also have a chance to become ‘hardware surgeons’ — pulling apart a computer to identify its parts — and build small robots out of Lego, programming them to move through a maze. There is a social component explored during the workshops as well.
“Taking apart the computer is very useful because it allows you to understand concepts that are abstract,” Moussavi says. “The robots allow students to see that problems may arise in your code and you need to solve the issue. It also teaches you about algorithms.”
Moussavi and her friends originally envisioned workshops of 50 children. But after consulting with Carter, they decided on one-on-one sessions with a dozen students instead.
Carter also shared worksheets he and Eiselt had used in their old classes.
“Worksheets really worked,” he says. “In our first session, we had planned to do a short 10-minute introduction. But a couple of minutes into my opening the students were no longer paying attention — they were focused on the worksheet. So we stuck with it.”
Carter and Eiselt also discovered that when students were asked to pair up and work together, it was best to keep only one laptop open and allow for shorter periods of collaborative time to avoid distractions. Moussavi and her friends used these tips, along with information provided by the Pacific Autism Family Network, to fine-tune the new CODE workshops.
So far, the feedback has been positive.
“We had a student who had already attended a coding camp and the experience was discouraging,” she says. “But after finishing the CODE workshop he says he’d like to continue learning about computers and coding.”
Despite the initial success, Carter is concerned with the transition to university. Is there proper support for students on the autism spectrum? Are learning activities conductive for students with autism?
“In the United States, the CDC says one of every 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. There are anecdotal stories that people on the spectrum may enjoy coding. Are they directing themselves to CS? If so, do we have more students with ASD in computer science classes than in other classes?”
There’s no immediate answer to the question, but if Moussavi had her way, CODE would become a free, full-time school, taking in more students but maintaining an optimal teacher to student ratio. It’s a far cry from donut drive funding, but she’s an optimist.
“When we did our first workshop, there was a student who was very sensitive to touch and we were careful about this,” she recalls. “On the last day of the workshop he hugged his instructor. His mother says this was exceptional — he doesn’t like being touched, but he’d developed a great connection with us.”
And that’s why Moussavi and the other members of CODE are busy during Spring Break this March, beginning another round of workshops. They promise even more advanced workshops in the summer. CODE, they say, is here to stay.