For parents of autistic children, “learn to code” is not a snarky rejoinder to the absence of computer skills. It’s a legitimate suggestion for a career path.
Many children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle to find employment once they come of age, according to experts, who estimate most American adults with autism cannot find work. Now, hundreds of thousands of teenagers with autism are maturing into adulthood, and 10-15% of the population now either has ADHD or autism. Yet, in recent years, coding has developed into a large-scale option for this community in search of both employment and a place in society. Tech companies have grown to like the attention to detail and commitment to repetition that often goes hand-in-hand with autism, among other qualities.
And for area parents in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. who are interested in coding as a career for their child, there are options for getting started down that path.
Chad Hamel opened a local branch of national nonprofit theCoderSchool in Ashburn, Virginia three years ago. Today, the school is helping almost 300 kids learn to code. And Shelly McLaughlin, program director for Pathfinders for Autism in Hunt Valley, Maryland (the largest autism research center in the state, which also helps families who are looking for a specialist or other help for children with ASD), notes how big of a help coding has been for her own son.
“It’s not a token job. It’s an actual job,” McLaughlin says of coding. “A lot of individuals with autism can become very focused on something.”
Hamel and his wife opened theCoderSchool because they saw that the activity could make a difference for their son, Cooper. Cooper had hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the brain, as a baby and needed surgery at 3 months old. He had some delays as a kid, Hamel says, but learned to code in elementary school. His parents immediately noticed a difference in his self-esteem.
Now 8 years old, Cooper loves coding, and his father describes him as “happy and sweet” and “a whole different kid than he was when he started kindergarten.”
So for their students at theCoderSchool, the Hamels take a similar approach as to what they did with Cooper. Students receive one-to-one or two-to-one training and are able to tailor programs to their interests. Some kids design their own analytic programs, while others are more into art, Hamel says. The computer becomes an intermediary between kids, who may be uncertain of their social skills, and coaches. But as time goes on, they all work together.
“They have their coaches and they enjoy that time. It’s a safe environment,” he says.
Out of the school’s first round of kid coders a few years ago, 13 of them went on to get scholarships to computer science and cybersecurity programs around the country. One student—who had never coded before the program—earned a place in a cybersecurity program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“They’ll come to us and do a free trial, and we determine what their skill level is. Some kids have never coded before. Some have at other schools,” Hamel says. “We talk through what their goals are.”
When McLaughlin’s son Hunter, who has autism, was little, he would dump sets of LEGO onto the table, examine the pieces and find the one he needed, according to his mother. Then, he would build a 4,000-piece object, like the Death Star from “Star Wars.” “And he would go to the next step looking in the book, and it was like the piece he needed just levitated,” she says. It was that ability to focus, McLaughlin explains, that made Hunter a natural fit for coding, too.
The Pathfinders program director has noticed the same quality in autistic employees she has encountered at her center. One of them is “low-verbal,” the director says, meaning he rarely engages in verbal communication. But he does data entry, and he does it faster than a normal employee. McLaughlin says no one else can keep up with him.
An institution like theCoderSchool can help a child get started, or as McLaughlin explains, you can let your child lead the way.
Hunter taught himself to code by finding classes and activities online, she says. Once a child taps into their interest, it may make sense to seek out a program in the community, McLaughlin adds. Hunter later attended a summer tech camp at a local community college.
Data entry, like coding, is predictable. It operates according to a routine. Other humans are unpredictable, especially in their use of non-verbal language, according to McLaughlin. While the director says she does not recommend the coding path for all autistic children, she agrees it is a great opportunity for many of them at the moment.
“There’s a lot of interest in hiring individuals with autism,” says Trish Kane, deputy director of Pathfinders.