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How inclusion drives innovation

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If Swarthmore’s computer science core curriculum has taught me anything — other than some Python, C, and C++ —it is that collaborating with people who think differently from you is one of the most powerful tools in tech. One of my favorite parts about the CS department here is that all of the upper-level classes emphasize collaboration. Unpacking how someone else’s brain interprets information, ideas, and code is the absolute best way to concretize a concept into your brain. Additionally, two people who think differently working on the same project will allow you to partake in the creation of something you never would have been able to build on your own. This conception of neurodiversity arises frequently when discussing Autism Spectrum Disorder, its destigmatization, and expanding societal inclusion. Computer science as a discipline is a window through which these conceptions can become a reality.  It is no secret that autistic individuals face ubiquitous discrimination based on their differences, but what some people do not know is that the intellectual capacities of certain subsets of these individuals — those living with High Functioning ASD — are routinely and grossly underestimated.

As a computer science major, I can attest that coding is a task that requires resilience, meticulosity, and an inclination for both innovation and creativity. Further, coding is an explicitly detailed activity. There are neither innuendos nor overtones upon which someone must pick up. Every bit of syntax does exactly what it is supposed to — assuming your meticulous implementation details are correctly executed — and every line incorporates mathematical and logical reasoning in order to achieve the execution of the programmer’s intention.

Many of the qualities outlined above that are valued in a great coder can be amplified in certain individuals with high-functioning ASD. The disorder does not necessarily impede cognitive function from a purely intellectual standpoint, but due to their unconventional perceptions of social situations, autistic individuals with autism often find themselves disregarded in both school systems and professional settings. I would like to argue that these individuals can not only find inclusion in the rapidly expanding tech world but actually may possess the brains best suited to partake at the forefront of innovation.

I have seen the benefits of letting a kid with autism experiment with programming up close in my placement at Strath Haven High School. Andy, whose name here has been changed for privacy purposes, is a nonverbal autistic ninth grader whose ASD is comorbid with a collection of other disorders including one that severely impedes his motor skills and inhibits him from writing. Andy has taught himself to work with computers in the absence of being able to speak. He sees computers as a means by which he can express himself and communicate, and he often chooses to play with various coding applications. Even with his limitations, it is clear that Andy is quite good at manipulating machines, at times navigating technological devices more expertly than does his teaching aid.

Unfortunately, in the United States, kids like Andy rarely receive the chance to realize their tech potential in an intellectual capacity. 75-85 percent of people with ASD are unemployed, and even those who are higher functioning are often forced into jobs far below their intellectual capabilities. There are approximately 500,000 software engineering jobs that become available in the United States each year, yet less than 1 percent of those jobs are filled with people on the autism spectrum.

Despite running into obstacles in most collaborative work environments, people with ASD are thriving in Silicon Valley, the hub of the American technology world. In that world, some of the characteristics that classify people as autistic or “disabled” function as strengths. It is due to this fact that Silicon Valley possesses a disproportionately high concentration of people with ASD.  Silicon Valley is one of the most productive, innovative places in the country, and the fact that it is opening its doors to autistic people indicates the rest of the world could benefit from doing the same. We are disregarding the potential of so many in our population simply because of unwillingness to engage with difference, and ultimately, that only harms all parties involved.

Why should we care? Besides the fact that more tech-savvy brains collaborating to create and innovate can change the world, members of the Swarthmore computer science community specifically can only benefit from interacting and collaborating with minds different from our own in order to produce new and exciting ways of implementing code. Interactions with such minds may frequently occur in the workplace when we leave Swarthmore — should we be lucky to end up in a place like Silicon Valley.

There exist groups such as Coding Autism that are dedicated to teaching people on the spectrum to code. However, although these are exemplary organizations, ideally, people with ASD should receive the opportunity to learn to code before reaching adulthood. Many autistic children are not given the chance to maximize their potential during grade school and are placed in “regressive” classrooms with other students who qualify for special education. Coding at most high schools is an upper-level elective available only to those who are taking classes at the top of their school’s STEM tracks. Kids with autism, because of their difficulty in classroom settings, could be placed into a special education classroom with kids of far lower IQs and therefore never given the chance to take subjects such as computer science, even if they might excel at it.  

It is important to acknowledge that in order to teach coding, computers are required, and good technology is not an expense all school districts can easily afford. Still, there are ways to incorporate the same skills coding uses into the curriculum via mathematical proofs and logic puzzles that require nothing more than a pencil and paper.  When computers are available, coding should be a focus for all autistic children who possess the capacity to do it; integrating this practice into their education whenever possible will allow autistic children to see and internalize a potential framework for increased inclusion.

In addition to fighting for inclusion, it is critical that we identify autistic people by their strengths instead of solely categorizing them under the umbrella of disability.  “Always Unique, Totally Intelligent, Sometimes Mysterious” and “Nothing about us without us” are two slogans popularized by neurodiversity activists.

According to University of Montréal psychiatrist Laurent Mottron, “Many autistics… are suited for academic science… I believe that they contribute to science because of their autism, not in spite of it.” Similarly, perhaps the best people to develop technologies to benefit nonverbal or low-functioning autistic individuals are high-functioning ASD programmers in Silicon Valley. This fact could then decrease the chances of them being isolated or ostracized.

Finding fields such as computer science that play to the strengths of people with ASD rather than their weaknesses and ensuring these individuals get the opportunity to reach their potential is beyond critical. There is no app that cures autism, but granting people with ASD the skills to create technologies via the practice of coding not only integrates them into a lucrative, productive component of the economy but grants them access to a field that highlights, celebrates, and welcomes their strengths and views their minds as creative, productive, innovative, and desirable.

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