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STEM program reaching out to high-functioning children with autism

A new wrinkle was added this summer to the long-running day camp that Canisius College offers high-functioning children with autism: a technology component.

The idea was this: Those with the disorder often have an interest in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – but can struggle to find employment as adults because they lack the social skills needed in the workplace.

So why not use the camp to work on both issues?

“Awesome,” 12-year-old camper Miguel Acevedo said of the program, as he used his thumb and index finger to give the OK sign. “Better than sliced bread.”

For 17 summers now, the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius has been running the day camp “summerMAX” as a comprehensive treatment program for high-functioning children with autism ages 7 to 12, explained Marcus Thomeer, who co-directs the institute with Chris Lopata.

According to the Autism Speaks organization, the term describes a broad range or spectrum of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. It affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.

The kids attending the Canisius camp have cognitive and learning abilities in the average to above-average range, but have difficulty with what Thomeer calls “the social dance.” During the five weeks of camp, the kids participate in activities that help them practice their social skills, expand their interests, interpret commonly used jargon and recognize facial expressions.

That got folks thinking over at WNY STEM Hub, a non-profit created to steer kids toward the STEM fields.

Always on the lookout to reach new audiences, officials with WNY STEM read reports about high-functioning children with autism excelling in the computer field and how they are an untapped demographic that could help meet the future needs of the growing tech industry, said Michelle Kavanaugh, the organization’s acting executive director.

Supported by a $25,000 grant from AT&T, the non-profit approached Thomeer about integrating math, science and technology into the camp curriculum.

“A lot of their narrow interests are in science, engineering and physics, things like that where they’re good at numbers or coding,” Thomeer said.

“But,” Thomeer said, “you still have to work with other people and they miss the cues of what you’re supposed to do – that social dance. The social aspect is really critical.”

WNY STEM was a natural pairing for the summer day camp.

“It’s a great addition this year,” Thomeer said, “because the kids love it, they’re still in the structured program, but they’re having to work with other kids.”

The camp blocks out time for the 42 campers twice a week, when they do hands-on STEM activities with teachers brought in by WNY STEM.

On a recent morning, the kids split up into groups and sprawled out on the floor in a hallway, where they got a lesson on coding using Ozobots – pocket-sized robots with sensors that follow the lines the kids drew on paper with markers.

Who knows?

It might be a field Miguel pursues when he grows up.

“Maybe,” Miguel said.

Either that, he said, or a comedian.

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