New Wave Techies in Training

Debate has raged for years about why there has been explosion in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders but an indisputable fact is hundreds of thousands of those special needs kids will be looking for a job in the next decade.

Since relatively uniform monitoring was introduced by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2000, the number of children with ASD conditions such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder has grown by about 120 percent. One in 150 American kids was estimated to be on the spectrum in 2002. By 2010 it was one in 68.  Similar increases have been detected in many other countries.

Better diagnostic practices have helped identify more children with ASD while the enormity of the increase also has been linked to genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. ASD cover a wide range of people with disabilities and are generally sourced to a difference in brain function or structure.

Of the estimated 3.5 million Americans on the spectrum, about 500,000 will be seeking to enter the workforce in the next decade. This tsunami of job seekers with unique challenges and skills comes from a sector of the community that already struggles with enormous under-employment and unemployment rates.

Currently, nearly 35 percent to age 23 have never had a job or graduated college. More broadly, only 19.3 percent of people with any sort of disability are employed in any capacity. By 2020 it is estimated ASD will cost the country about $400 billion annually.

While the wide ranging ASD classification includes about 30 percent with an intellectual disability, somewhere in the range of half of those on the spectrum have normal or above average intellectual ability.

The education system and the workforce, it seems, are little prepared for the growing wave from the spectrum, an acute concern for many parents of special needs kids.

“The thing is for me as a parent of child with emotional and learning differences I am fearful; I’m fearful that when he turns 21 what is going to happen,” says Beth Rosenberg, an educator and consultant on faculty at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering.

After her now 16-year old son Jack Rubin had bounced around summer camps and special interest courses without finding an environment suitably supportive of both his considerable talent as a filmmaker and his challenges as a teen with special needs, Rosenberg decided to set up a program from scratch.

Five years later, her not-for-profit, Tech Kids Unlimited (TKU) offers summer camp and year round workshop opportunities for special needs kids to develop career-enhancing skills in the fastest growing sector of the economy, technology.

“I knew that technology was a place to really level the playing field, and many of Jack’s friends are really talented in that way, they just need to be guided the right way,” she says.

“I feel like I want to put the power in their hands. The idea was we take these kids and teach the skills at young ages and get them used to working in collaboration — using critical thinking skills and being able to problem solve because that’s a lot of what you have to do when you work at a technology company.”

“The challenge is to pack their resumes with coding skills, with HTML 5, with Javascript, with Unity, with video editing skills, sound editing skills … so they look really attractive to technology companies.”

Hundreds of New York kids, aged from eight to 18, have sampled TKU which boasts a high teacher to student ratio with social workers on hand for every session. The students also benefit from opportunities to socialize and take field trips to companies such as Google and Vimeo.

Rosenberg and her team – Jack is on the company board – plan to expand the program in New York and possibly to other cities around the country.

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