Connecting Autistic Students with Digital SkillsConnecting autistic students with digital skills and technology to enable them to communicate and succeed is a focus of a new start-up that is willing national attention.

In between lesson plans and parent conferences,Philadelphia  teacher Michele McKeone has attracted some major buzz, along with sizable grants from the University of Pennsylvania and the Milken Family Foundation, attention from national media, and a start-up-of-the-year prize at the Philadelphia Geek Awards.

Autism Expressed, her fledgling business, teaches digital skills to students with autism. It is the first program of its kind on the market, experts believe, and one McKeone hopes will modernize special-education services.

It began in a way familiar to many teachers. She saw a need in her classroom, so she filled it.

McKeone studied digital media at the University of the Arts before earning her master’s degree in education. When she began teaching in 2008, she was surprised that, although her main charge was preparing students for life after graduation, there was nothing in the curriculum about understanding and using 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.”Connecting Autistic Students with Digital Skills

They won third place. Soon, Philadelphia School District officials began asking McKeone to talk in teacher trainings about her experiences. She spoke frequently on teaching tech skills to special-education students – with an eye not just toward life skills but also toward 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.”

According to recent research, about half of all young people with autism are neither employed nor enrolled in postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school – a sobering statistic, given the large autistic population.

Despite their challenges, McKeone’s students are often extremely capable in the digital world – not just with the basic tools and social-media platforms their peers enjoy, but with more sophisticated applications, like HTML, the language used to build Web pages.

“HTML is logical, and we’d be working on it, and they would pick up the little things I wouldn’t see,” McKeone said. “And even if students are doing a vocational program, they still need to be able to e-mail, to fill out a job application online.”

David Mandell – who directs Penn’s Center for Mental Health Policy and conducts research on improving outcomes for people with autism – believes McKeone’s program is vital.

“It is filling an important niche,” said Mandell, who now sits on McKeone’s advisory board. “There’s an extraordinary need. People didn’t even know that there was a need until this program came along.”

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