Lessening the Digital Divide for Autistic Youth

by Alex Tabony, | 3/7/2017

Disability advocate and educator, Alex Tabony @AlexLTabony is executive director for Computer Technologies Program. For the past 18 years, he has provided training to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Historically, access to computer science (CS) classes has been very limited for youth with disabilities enrolled in special education programs and especial for those on the autism spectrum. To lessen this digital divide Computer Technologies Program (CTP) offered a free Robot Code event designed specifically for autistic youth to gain greater access to CS education and offer an encouraging introduction to the field of robotics and coding.

The all-day event was held during CSEd Week in December 2016 in Berkeley, CA and made possible by an Infosys Foundation USA grant. These 25 autistic individuals were selected based on their ability to benefit from such an event as well as introduce them (and their parents) to the possibility of pursuing future education or career opportunities in the field of robotics and CS.

Prior to the event, most of the students had very limited experience with CS education which made it difficult for school staff, who work with these students regularly, to gauge overall interest level or aptitude.

Lessening the Digital Divide for Autistic Youth

Once the Robot Code event began, not only did many of these youth demonstrate a strong interest in robotics and coding, a surprising number exceled and showed impressive potential for developing advanced skills with further training.

Several girls, including Kiki and Talia, expressed a strong interest in Robot Code. Approximately one-third of the students surpassed performance expectations and could have benefited from a more rigorous program with more advanced CS opportunities.

This video captures the day’s enthusiasm.

Many parents noted how this experience opened a new door of opportunity and were excited to see where this introduction to technology would lead them. Two mothers, including Sandra and Carmen, shared why an event like Robot Code is so important for kids with autism.

Another mother wrote post-event that her daughter had never expressed interest in robotics before---but was now hoping for a robot to appear under the Christmas tree. And a survey showed satisfaction and acknowledged positives outcomes from Robot Code:

  • 89% noted their child had a "better" or "much better than" expected result
  • 55% stated their child would “likely” or “very likely” pursue more technology classes
  • "Overall, it was a terrific day. The people were helpful, the projects were spot on crowd pleasers. I am greatly appreciative of this event and the time and toil it took from everyone to pull it together for our kids. Some of them would not otherwise get a chance to see what coding is. Thank you!"

The Robot Code event provided CTP additional programmatic insights and areas for improvement for future CS education classes. These insights included designing ‘sampler technology classes’ to gauge interest and ability, offering shorter, low-risk classes staffed with instructors experienced in working with autistic students. Future classes will also include greater flexibility for interested students to explore topics beyond the scope of the pre-defined lab work while encouraging corporative interaction over competitive activities.