The pronounced challenges that young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face in seeking and maintaining employment often stand in stark contrast to their abilities. Programs like the successful nonprofit Tech Kids Unlimited, which provides technological instruction for New York City students with ASD in one-week summer camp workshops, are needed to address this gap between ability and employment. They also need to be evaluated to determine if they are fulfilling the needs of students and their parents and providing the best possible instruction.
Tech Kids Unlimited provides a supportive environment rich in technological instruction for students with ASD. Exploring topics like website or game design, the workshops follow a maker-based curriculum in which students create, interact with, and present their projects.
In 2017, with the support of a $2,000 OAR Graduate Research grant, Ariana Riccio, a PhD student at City University of New York, set out to evaluate the Tech Kids Unlimited program and improve the curriculum based on the results of the evaluation. The ultimate aim of her two-year study was to help the growing population of adolescents with autism, who often face barriers to employment despite technical skills and interests, overcome barriers and succeed in obtaining meaningful jobs through which they can positively impact the world.
The first part of the study consisted of an evaluation of the Tech Kids Unlimited Program informed by the perspectives of students and parents. In the second part of the study, Riccio and her team adapted the curriculum based on the evaluation results in order to improve skill learning and student engagement with curriculum materials.
Study Part One: Program Evaluation
Twenty students between the ages of 13 and 20 participated in open-ended interviews at the beginning and end of the workshops. Riccio’s research team asked them about learning goals/outcomes, current skills and career goals, perceptions of challenges they may encounter entering STEM fields, and what they considered to be helpful elements of the curriculum.
Student feedback highlighted a preference for hands-on, multimodal (varying methods, including lecture, hands-on work, etc.) instruction, consistent with the tenets of the universal design for learning. Universal design for learning employs a number of teaching methods in order to ensure that all students can learn and succeed.
Parent and instructor surveys revealed that both groups found the Tech Kids Unlimited program valuable for teens. Feedback from qualitative questions indicated that students were more focused and performed better when the workshop theme was tailored to the interests of the group. Instructors also indicated that additional time for each workshop would be beneficial to produce a more in-depth technology project.
Study Part Two: Curriculum Adaptation
Based on that information, Riccio and her team created a 10-day pilot game design workshop, which included a curriculum template for instructors that incorporated a universal design. Their goal was to determine if longer workshops with a universal design for learning resulted in better learning outcomes for neurodiverse students.
Instructors incorporated a number of learning methods, including group discussions, hands-on activities, independent work, and video. Students checked in regularly to evaluate progress and received feedback from staff at key junctures. They were encouraged to review what they learned, practiced time management, and discussed their goals as a group.
The results of that pilot workshop suggested that parents of participants perceived an improvement in social skill learning. The specificity of student job plans also improved numerically when comparing 2017 to 2018. As in the 2017 interviews about the Tech Kids Unlimited curriculum, when researchers asked students what skills they learned from the 2018 workshop, technology skills were most often cited.
Based on data from the study evaluation, the adaptations Riccio and her team made to the Tech Kids Unlimited curriculum did strengthen the ability to teach teens with autism vital technology skills while connecting them to a community of individuals with similar affinities.