How can STEM subjects support young people with autism?

By Helen Dyer

Children on the Autism Spectrum & Parents Association (CASPA) has been working to support children and young people with autism and their families in south London for 15 years. Autism is a lifelong neurological developmental condition which affects all aspects of a person’s life. It is often referred to as an “invisible” disability that can compound a person’s difficulties, as they are often not afforded the same levels of acceptance or tolerance which those with a physical or more obvious disability are. Many of our CASPA children and young people are struggling to be understood, and due to their social & communication disabilities they can appear challenging. The frustrations that come with being unable to communicate as society wants you to can lead to anger, sadness and feelings of worthlessness, which in turn can impact on a young person’s ability to maintain a successful school place, make friends, engage in activities and ultimately lead successful and satisfying lives.

85% of adults with autism in the UK are unemployed. This is a bleak and terrifying fact, and is not, we believe, related to the ability of these individuals to work; rather it is related to the lack of understanding of their complex conditions and indicative of how challenging it can be for employers to make proper and reasonable adjustments for those with neuro-diverse needs.

Many of our children and young people at CASPA, and indeed many adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions, have deep interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, for various reasons. In terms of computing and technology, it is the case that due to the intricate and yet predictable nature of the technological processes, the autistic brain can engage with these on an intense and unusual level. The ability of many people with autism to think logically and focus for long periods of time, among other strengths, means that they can often solve problems and make progress in STEM subjects better than a neurotypical (non-autistic) person.

microsoft, windows, autism

At CASPA we have noticed this and feel passionately that for some of our children and young people, this interest and ability in technology could ultimately provide the key to their integration into society. We believe that our community has not yet been given the opportunity to properly explore these possibilities. We know that through providing proper support while learning and developing, our young people have a massive amount of potential and could contribute hugely to society as well as then living fruitful, happy lives.

Dennis Publishing have chosen CASPA as their charity of the year and through this they have facilitated a connection with Microsoft, for which we are very grateful. Microsoft is precisely the kind of company which can have a significant impact in terms of improving the life chances of this isolated community as well as benefiting massively from the brilliant brains and unique strengths that people with autism can bring to the world of technology into the future.

For our children to be offered the opportunity to learn from Microsoft experts during an upcoming series of workshops is a wonderful chance for them to indulge in their favourite pasttime. They can really challenge themselves in terms of learning about new areas (the BBC micro:bit and virtual reality), travel to London (a huge challenge for some of these children), be exposed to the world of work, meet and communicate with new people and show off their own skills and expertise. We hope it will enable them to begin to realise that their “special interest” is actually key to their journey towards integration and future independence, in a world which for many is so confusing and anxiety-inducing that they rarely venture out of their own bedrooms other than to come to CASPA.

Helen Dyer is Director of CASPA. CASPA and Microsoft are holding a series of joint workshops on July 6 that will include the BBC micro:bit and virtual reality.