Building from Strengths: A Curriculum to Help Adolescents with ASD Develop Creative Technology Skills and Succeed in STEM Fields

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
A. Riccio1, M. Hossain2, B. Rosenberg3,4 and K. Gillespie-Lynch5, (1)Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), New York, NY, (2)Hunter College, CUNY, New York, NY, (3)Tech Kids Unlimited, Brooklyn, NY, (4)Technology, Culture, Society, New York University Tandon School of Engineering, Brooklyn, NY, (5)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island; CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn, NY
Background: People with ASD are chronically underemployed (Burgess & Cimera, 2014) despite their often heightened interest in computers (Wei et al., 2013) and the growing need for professionals who specialize in computing. Despite a deeply problematic gap between the potential of youth with ASD and their employment outcomes, evidence-based services to bridge this gap remain very limited (Taylor & Seltzer, 2011). Tech Kids Unlimited (TKU), a not-for-profit, aims to provide students with ASD and other learning differences with opportunities to build from their strengths to obtain meaningful careers.

Objectives: We aimed to gain insights about the interests/goals of teens with ASD and their perspectives about TKU to inform curriculum adaptations.

Methods: Throughout seven weeks of summer programming, twenty students with ASD (13-20 years; M = 15.6) participated in structured interviews at the beginning and end of each week-long workshop. After achieving reliability, the lead author coded students’ responses. Optional Likert scale surveys were distributed at the end of the week to parents and instructors of all students who participated in summer programming.

Results: When asked what they were looking forward to at the beginning of the week, most students indicated excitement about technology (68%), 26% reported anticipation of social opportunities. When asked what social skills they hoped to learn at TKU, 36% of students did not know or did not feel they needed social skills supports. When asked what job they would like, 79% of students indicated STEM careers. Only 26% of students identified specific job-related skills they hoped to learn. Few students (35.29%) provided a specific employment-preparation strategy.

When asked what they had learned, most (82%) students indicated technological skills, 24% indicated social skills. When asked what they had learned which could help them get a job, most students (47%) indicated technological skills, 24% indicated social skills. When asked how their instructor made activities interesting for them, 56% of students described hands-on activities and 31% described playful humor/games.

In post-test surveys, instructors indicated that all program participants (n=42) developed technological skills (M= 5.59 out of 7) and were engaged with the curriculum (M= 5.49) and other teens (M= 5.05). Parents (n=23) indicated that students gained skills needed to obtain employment (M= 5.48 out of 7), technological skills (M= 5.45), social-emotional skills (M= 5.14), and friendships (M=5.21).

Conclusions: Students’, parents’ and instructors’ indicated that adolescents with autism gained technological and social skills at TKU. Students and parents reported that skills learned could help students obtain jobs. In order to help students transition into careers aligned with their interests, TKU’s innovative curriculum should increasingly emphasize activities to help students identify goals and monitor progress developing job-related soft skills (e.g., planning and collaboration). Given that teens with ASD reported that hands-on, playful, technology-based activities are a central aspect of their enjoyment of TKU, curricular adaptations should continue building on these strengths.