Alan George recently messaged ‘Manu sir’ from his mother Maria Priya’s phone and asked for a coding-related assignment.
“He was asked to draw a pattern consisting of various shapes and sizes. He did it almost entirely by himself,” says Maria, a faculty at Loyola College, of the assignment Alan received from his coding mentor.
Never before has he managed classes on his own, always requiring his mother to sit with him. “Now, he does not allow me to sit with him for the classes and closes the door so that I do not interrupt him,” Maria smiles.
Alan, 17 years old, has Down’s Syndrome, and the youngster has completed level six of a coding course, and his appetite for the subject is becoming elephantine.
A big hand in this transition, Maria says, is the inclusive tech education and mentorship that he has been getting.
Alan has enrolled with HashHackCode, a Chennai-based edu-tech start-up that has nearly 50 persons with ASD, ADHD/ADD, Dyslexia, Down Syndrome, Hard of Hearing, Non-Verbal and other learning difficulties learning coding.
The online advantage
These one-to-one personalised classes has a parent and the student learning from a mentor. Since lockdown came into force, the classes are being conducted online.
Preeti L., whose son is on the spectrum, says the virtual classes are a revelation. “The child studies from the comfort of their home, in a non-threatening environment, with a mentor to guide them,” says Preeti, a resident of T. Nagar. “There is a striking difference between how the child responds to in-person classes and online classes.”
“Out of an ignorance about how computers could benefit my son, I failed to introduce him to applications other than Photoshop and MS Word. Now, I notice a great difference in him on account of the tech classes he is attending,” says Radha Nandakumar, whose son N. Arvind Kumar is non-verbal.
When Radha enrolled him in the technology classes, there were two things she wanted him to overcome — typing speed and sitting tolerance.
“My child is non-verbal since the age of four and I have been familiarising him with typing since then, but he was only using his index finger and sometimes expresses pain so I wanted him to be trained in using his other fingers too,” says Radha.
The results are stark. Radha credits the mentor for this, right from her voice. “Children with auditory sensory problems cannot tolerate certain voices and we were lucky that Arvind liked his mentor, Aditi Bansal’s voice and her soft nature. That is a big reason why he now sits through the one-hour class,” says Radha, adding that of the 10 levels in the course Arvind has completed five.
- The pandemic has brought to the fore the interest children and young adults with disabilities have in computer programming.
- Coding can be particularly useful for those on high-functioning autism spectrum. These children have significant visual-spatial skills, and they pay attention to minute details, having an enormous capacity for repetitive activities and acquiring logical skills, all of which are needed to understand coding.
- What they lack is social and communication skills, which is less interfering when they are working in front of the computer.
- Data shows that graduates on the spectrum, close to 80%, are not yet employed. Given their core social deficits, curriculum-based teaching is not enough to land them jobs. These differently-abled individuals need skill-based, flexible and user-friendly curriculum, so that they can learn it at their pace.
- For this, educational institutions have to be inclusive first and then introduce courses in programming for these individuals. We also need companies to offer them internships after they complete these courses.
- Dr. N. Rajeshwari is Chief Consultant - Pediatrics and Developmental Neurologist, Head of Child Development Centre, Dr. Kamakshi Memorial Hospitals
Manu Sekar, CEO and founder of HashHackCode, says coding is a new-age skill and imparting coding skills to neuro-diverse individuals is going to give them a great deal of independence.
“Parents have to start looking beyond jobs in retail and as data entry operators. Coding when taught differently offers a new pathway,” says 30-year-old Manu. All the classes are personalised and they encourage mothers also to be part of the sessions.
The ability to type and operate a computer is all that is required for someone to start as a student. “We have a team of mentors who take the classes, all one-on-one and a majority of them are youngsters,” he says.
Can special students master coding? Manu says that most of these neuro-diverse individuals have pattern recognition, sequencing and logical deduction skills, all of which are needed in mastering coding.
By offering inclusive classes, HashHackCode is building a community of coders who will be ready to take up short-term projects, says Manu.
Prem Sankar, the first student of the centre and an individual with ASD, recently launched his own website, codewithprem.in, where he takes up freelance assignments. Sankar designs and develops websites, and a few testimonials are proof of how well he does what he does.