The five teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) took part in an IT club run by the University of New England, to see if by learning programming, they could also develop their social skills.

The ASD-IT Club was run over a six-week period and involved five participants from 12 to 17 years old.  

Professor Chris Sharpley from the UNE’s Brain-Behaviour Research Group says children with ASD are diagnosed according to a number of criteria, one of which is difficulty understanding and interacting in typical social situations.

“So, if you were dealing with a child with ASD and another child near them said, ‘hey Chris, have you got a pen?’, you or I might think that the other person was asking if you have a spare pen,” he says.

“The child with ASD will think you’re asking ‘do you have a pen?’, will look at their pen and say, ‘yes’.

“And that very literal understanding is what sometimes gets them into awkward situations, when other people think that they’re being smartarses and things like that.”

As a result, Sharpley says people with ASD often become isolated, can suffer from bullying and develop anxiety and depression.

“So what we tried to do was give them a little bit of time just to themselves,” he says of the IT Club.

Students with ASD are often also diagnosed as being hyper-reactive to sensory stimuli, to the point where they might be incapable of concentrating in class if there is a humming sound coming from the fluorescent light above.

To combat some of the difficulties these students normally face, researchers at UNE were very specific in the way they set up and ran the club.

“…we had a specific room with not a lot of distractions, no posters on the walls, just the minimum amount of sensory stimuli,” he says.

“We also set it so that it was the same time each week, and the people who were giving the course were the same.

“It’s those sorts of unscheduled and unpredictable changes that make these children anxious, and when they get anxious then their challenging behavior starts to occur.”

And of course it’s no coincidence that IT was chosen as the focus for the group.

“Children with ASD quite often have an interest in IT because of their difficulty socialising with others, they tend to want to do things by themselves,” Sharpley says.

“Many of them are quite bright children, and as a result they get onto the web and they find that they can learn and do things and interact with others, in a way that is relatively free of the difficulties in understanding social interactions that they have in normal classroom situations.”

“Several large international companies in Europe have recently hired several hundred people with ASD because they’re able to check code very effectively, and one of the positives is, they really have a great eye for detail. So that’s their strengths,” he adds.

Results from the IT Club are so impressive, UNE have been granted funding to run it again.

Participants reported a 20 per cent decrease in difficulties controlling worries and 33per cent decrease in feeling excessively shy with classmates.

Sleep difficulties and restlessness also improved following participation in the course. 

“By the end of the course … we had a little pizza party for them, and they were not only taking an interest in each others’ work, which was something they hadn’t done before, they were also taking an interest in the two people who had taught them,” Sharpley reports.

“Their interest and their confidence in being able to use IT skills went up, their parents reported that they were much calmer, and we had their schools also contacting us, saying 'these children seem to be getting on much better with others',” he continues.

“So what we’ve shown by this is that these kids can learn extremely well, they can be successful at learning computer programming, and they can improve their social skills, given the right environment.”