A first-of-its-kind online learning platform is bringing critical digital and life skills to Philadelphia students with autism and developmental disorders.
Many students with autism have a natural affinity to technology, and learning to use different types of online tools—such as Google Drive and LinkedIn—fosters a sense of autonomy and self-expression, says Michelle McKeone, the School District of Philadelphia special education teacher who created the Autism Expressed platform in 2011.
Autism Expressed teaches basic digital vocabulary—words like “hyperlink”—so students can communicate with others about technology. Students also learn about time management, email, internet privacy settings, calendar use, and how to make appropriate, on-topic comments on social media. Students also create online resumes on LinkedIn. Identifying their strengths and skillsets better positions them to look for jobs after graduation, McKeone says.
McKeone says her high school students were not being taught the technology they would need to find jobs or continue their education after graduation. With grants from the University of Pennsylvania and the Milken Family Foundation, she hired designers and developers to bring her specialized digital curriculum to life.
“The lack of access to these essential skills is creating a critical barrier for this population’s transition to independence,” McKeone says. Over half of young adults with autism are not employed or enrolled in postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school, according to a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics. “We believe that this type of training will be essential to increasing postsecondary outcomes,” McKeone adds.
Many apps on the market are geared toward students with autism, but most focus on early intervention or socialization rather than digital media or technology skills. Autism Expressed won Startup of the Year at the 2013 Philadelphia Geek Awards, and is now used in Philadelphia autistic support classrooms in high schools, middle schools and one elementary school.
It will soon be rolled out in other districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Schools are charged per user for the program, and prices drop as the number of users increases.