Assistant professor of engineering at Old Dominion Chung-Hao Chen was asked by a tech company whether he knew any engineering graduates who were on the high-functioning end of autism, a disorder characterized by difficulties communicating and making relationships.
Chen thought the question was a bit odd, but research showed companies recruiting people with autism as computer programmers and product testers because of their attention to detail.
“Because autistic people are very focused on particular things, they can keep looking and looking for a problem without getting tired,” Chen said. “When we design programs, it’s tedious work. They seek the detail to fix the problem. They are very focused.”
Chen searched for a way to get kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, so this seemed like a perfect match.
He met with Dr. Maria Urbano, director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Program for Older Adolescents & Young Adults at Eastern Virginia Medical School, to devise a 12-week program. Studies showed that high school students with and without the disorder would work with college engineering students to build small robots powered by computers.
What these students lacked in picking up social cues like sarcasm and facial expressions, they sometimes made up for and excelled in understanding predictable systems. Additional studies and observational anecdotes showed that people with autistic traits have a higher aptitude for math and technology.
They are more likely to understand machines, computer programs and technological systems because of logistics. So using their interests to get them to form relationships could make sense.The experiment could help them transition into real-world work settings.
In April six students with autism, ages 14 to 17, sat at three lab tables in Kaufman Hall. Three high school and engineering students without autism served as a control group for the experiment.
The experiment found the students opening up their experiences of being teased about being autistic. The study also found one student using the experiment to better channel her anger into a more positive response.
Catherine Semmler, a 15-year-old from Virginia Beach sat at the middle table. She is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
“Just the fact that I get to do hands-on stuff is great,” she said of her ability to use her attentive detail to solve the project.
She seems like the typical freshman girl, but according to her mother, Natalie Semmler, her overly enthusiastic nature while pursuing a narrow band of interests, her conviction that she’s always right and her reluctance to yield to others can make teamwork difficult.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, a figure that’s grown rapidly in the past decade partly because of better diagnosis.
They range from children who can’t talk to others and will always need supervision to those who make straight A’s in school but can’t navigate relationships well enough to fit into the workplace.
A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics showed that only 35 percent of young adults with autism attended college and only 55 percent had a job during the first six years after high school.
Urbano said she has heard of companies interested in high-functioning autistic employees. German software company SAP, for instance, announced this year that it’s recruiting people with autism as programmers and product testers because of their close attention to detail and ability to solve complex problems.
Like Catherine, a study published last year in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that students with autism were more likely than the general population to choose science and math based fields.
This summer, Urbano will review tapes taken in the classroom throughout the 12 weeks to gauge differences in interaction over time, and will score them on a standardized scale.
She and Chen hope to publish the results, with an eye toward improving social skills of high school students with autism as well as giving them insight into a field where they could thrive after high school.
Catherine says she loved learning about robots, but she wasn’t ready to decide on a career just yet.
“Science and math are my forte,” she said, “but I have a whole bunch of things I like to do. I like animals, I want to write, I want to draw. So many things. I’m everywhere!”
By. Brian Jerry