New Program Develops Tech Skills In Students With Autism

In Philadelphia, teacher Michele McKeone has started a program unlike any other. It has won her grants from the University of Pennsylvania and the Milken Family Foundation, national media attention, and a start up of the year prize at the Philadelphia Geek Awards. And it is located in an unusual place — a classroom at a local high school.

McKeone’s business, Autism Expressed, teaches digital skills to students with autism. The program is the first of its kind and one that she hopes will help modernize special education services.

McKeone earned her master’s degree in education, preceded by study in digital media at the University of the Arts. She says she was surprised that her directive for teaching was to prepare students for life after graduation, yet there was no curriculum to teach students how to understand and use technology.

So she improvised – teaching her students about e-mail, Web browsing, video editing, even coding. They took to it with enthusiasm and skill, and in 2010, she entered a group of students in a computer fair. “It was not the Special Olympics,” she said. “It was a highly competitive, very regulated event.”

The students won third place, and school district officials asked McKeone to talk to teachers about her experience. She spoke often at teacher training events about teaching tech skills to special education students focusing on not only life skills but towards building marketable skills.

“You have to raise expectations,” McKeone said. “There’s no reason I can’t teach students coding if they can learn e-mail. It’s about sequencing. It’s about executive function.”

Kristen A. Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that recent research found that half of young people with autism are unemployed and not attending post-secondary education two years after high school graduation. This statistic is serious considering the large population of autistic students.

Director for Penn’s center for Mental Health Policy, David Mandell says the program McKeone created is vital. He conducts research on improving the prospects of people with autism and now is on McKeone’s advisory board.

“It is filling an important niche. There’s an extraordinary need. People didn’t even know that there was a need until this program came along.”

After winning one business competition after another, McKeone has now turned her work into a subscription-based business that can be used by schools, districts, organizations, and students at home.