The Benefits of Connecting Kids With Autism to Social Media

Autism Expressed, an online course in digital literacy, gives students a chance to be heard while they learn practical skills.

Michele McKeone teaches a class with help from her online program Autism Expressed. (Photo: Allison Dougherty/Courtesy Autism Expressed)

Mar 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Michele McKeone studied streaming video before YouTube existed and designed a social network before Facebook became a household name. As an undergrad in digital media at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she immersed herself in the world of digital media. She knew this technology would forever change the way we live and socialize.

While working on her master’s degree in special education, McKeone noticed that the kids she taught were missing out on the exciting technology developing online. “As a support teacher for children with autism, I realized that while there was no curriculum designed to teach digital literacy that matched the unique needs of my students, these skills were becoming increasingly important in our day-to-day interactions and changing the way we work, communicate, and even socialize,” she says.

Last summer McKeone launched Autism Expressed, the first and only online learning program teaching digital literacy to students with autism and other developmental disabilities. The program is available to public and private schools, teachers, and parents. Already, thousands of students have used it.

While teaching computer skills, the curriculum simultaneously helps students develop the skills taught in special education classrooms, such as communication and socialization, time and task management, and transition planning and preparation for after they leave school.

The program aims to help some students to secure employment after high school. McKeone says that many people don't realize that students with autism can struggle just to send an email with a résumé attached. She says that there are students who have used the program who have been able to find basic technology jobs as a result.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism-spectrum disorder. The Autism Society states that it is the fastest-growing developmental disability, and only 56 percent of students with autism finish high school. It also reports that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 14 percent, compared with 9 percent for people without a disability.

(Photo: Courtesy of Autism Expressed)

Autism Expressed is purchased by parents or small groups through an online subscription. The program is based in the Cloud, and students can use it for one to two years, depending on how a teacher or parents want to use it. As new technology emerges, McKeone adds continuing education courses.

Students learn vocabulary such as "hyperlink" and "URL" and conceptual knowledge such as appropriate online behavior, appropriate comments to post online, and what happens when a person shares a post.

From there, students move into the application of that knowledge and actual skill development. All the lessons are broken down into their smallest, most manageable parts. Students also learn email concepts and etiquette, online calendar management, and online résumé preparation. They also learn higher executive skills such as time management and critical thinking skills.

“Today the ability to email, social network, and simply navigate the Web are essential life skills,” McKeone says. “Most of us have learned these skills through our work, friends and family, or by sitting down in front of computer and exploring. For our students with developmental disabilities, this is not always the case, due to their need for a specialized approached to their learning.”

The success stories are amazing, McKeone says.

She says she has seen students’ social skills improve because of the program. She notices that kids have more empathy, more motivation, and have longer attention spans. She recalls several students she has taught who would get easily frustrated as a result of their low verbal abilities. "By giving them digital media and giving them their own website to identify interests, they had their own voice, and the frustration went down," she says.

McKeone said one student of the program created an online portfolio for a college application and a blog linked to it. "It was very creative, and it gave a space to really show what he was capable of doing," she says.

Making an online portfolio with a coordinating blog is a skill many students—autistic or not—could use. That's where McKeone is heading next. She's extending her brand with a product called Digitability that will teach digital skills to any elementary or middle school kid, including kids with special education needs.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.