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September 6, 2011 - EVANSTON, IL — Have Dreams, a not-for-profit which provides services to children with Autism , has developed a program to teach computer programming and social skills by designing and creating video games.
The program, called Tech Star Kids” teaches children aged 9-13 who are categorized as having “High Functioning Autism” (or in some cases referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome). The goal of the program is to provide social interaction by working as a software development team, and then using the creation of a video game as a motivation to learn computer programming.
A successful pilot of the program took place at the Evanston Have Dreams location in August 2011, and a new class will begin in October. Tech Star Kids utilized many of the popular software tools that are used to teach computer programming to young children, including Alice 2.0, Scratch, and Robocode.
“The students are a unique combination of being both gifted and disabled, and this class is designed to address both those needs,” explained Kathryn Born, one of the creators of the program. “They learn software faster and have better concentration then their neurotypical peers. However, managing the learning environment requires much greater structure and a very high student/teacher ratio, as the students resist following instructions and working as a team.”
Research about employment statistics for individuals with Asperger’s has been reported to be as low at 12%. As the need for information technology professionals grows, Have Dreams is striving to provide vocational instruction to students at a young age, in an effort to help them prepare for mainstream computer science programs, or vocations within the tech industry.
Born continues, “The Information Technology industry is a perfect match for these kids. There are lots of jobs, an environment where they can work independently, and workplaces where social skills aren’t as important as the ability to code and move technology forward. We found that for adults with mild Asperger’s, many had found a social life in ‘Geek culture’; things like Linux groups and robotics competitions. We wanted to create that same kind of camaraderie for pre-teens with special needs”.
The program also aims to expand to non-verbal children, who have responded positively to touch-screen computers, and been able to demonstrate more proficiency than many parents and educators thought was possible.