High school student A.J. adjusts a robot he and his classmates built. (Photo: Élishia Sharie)

Kids With Autism Find Path to Success at STEM-Focused School

This first-of-its-kind school spins special education on its head, focusing on students’ strengths instead of their weaknesses.
Oct 31, 2016· 13 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

LOS ANGELES—At 8:50 on a warm morning in October, a group of high school seniors paint long strips of canvas in a small science classroom. Yawns spread from teen to teen in the dimly lit room as they daub blank parchment with orange, green, and purple paints. One student’s eyes flutter as she tells her peers about staying up until 2 a.m. the night before to finish a campaign poster for the student council elections. Two boys goof off, chuckling as they dump globs of paint onto canvas, delaying the project’s completion. Once the thick layers of paint dry, the strips of canvas will be woven together to create brightly colored graph paper on which teachers will post weekly problems for a prize or extra credit.

It seems like a typical classroom in an average high school, but as the minutes pass it becomes clear how many little things are different for the 15 seniors at STEM3 Academy, an innovative private school that focuses on science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.

For starters, there’s no blaring bell ringing to dictate when students need to be in their seats—administrators decided to forgo disruptive loud noises and the anxiety of a bell system. Some trickle in long after class has gotten under way, after a stop at the school therapist’s office—and when the tardy students arrive, they’re welcomed with sincere smiles from the class’ two teachers. The dim lighting isn’t a power-saving measure—many students prefer to work without the flickering fluorescent lights found in classrooms and offices across the country. When students slump in chairs or rest their heads on their desks, they don’t get posture pointers from the teachers.

All of those differences are parts of a major innovation in education in service of two tremendous goals: to reach a population of students that often has been ignored or misunderstood in traditional schools and to train America’s future software engineers, doctors, and astronauts. All the students at STEM3 Academy have what many would consider a learning disability, including autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. School administrators at the first-of-its-kind school don’t see the differences as hindrances but as special gifts.

STEM3 Academy opened in 2015 with 30 students and has since expanded to include middle and elementary schools, with a total enrollment of 75 students. Demand is high, and getting in isn’t easy. The school is part of the Help Group, a nonprofit organization that runs 10 schools for students with special needs in Greater Los Angeles. Although Help Group schools have long provided services to average and gifted students with learning differences, STEM3 Academy is the first to feature a STEM-focused curriculum.

“There isn’t anything like it anywhere,” Ellis Crasnow, the director of Stem3 Academy, says of the school. “We can provide [the students] with the resources and opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily get at a public school or even a private school.”

Approximately one in every 68 children born in the United States has autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The prevalence of autism diagnoses in children increased by nearly 120 percent from 2000 to 2010. Much of this increase is due to heightened awareness about autism and changes in how the disorder is diagnosed, according to a 2015 study out of Penn State University. Researchers note that these changes do not account for the entire increase in prevalence, which suggests that autism is becoming more common.

From left: Neil, David, Stefanie, teacher Megumi Guillaume, and Ryan work on a collaborative art project in senior project class.
(Photos: Élishia Sharie)

About 40 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder have an intellectual disability, often determined by IQ tests. But STEM3 Academy is designed for students who are gifted or have intelligence levels comparable to those of the general population. Administrators are selective in the students they admit, looking for those who also have a passion for a STEM-related subject and are able to work alongside others with minimal behavioral problems.

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Yet even with the many commonalities among the students, they still have diverse needs and challenges.

“There’s an old saying that if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” Crasnow says. “They’re all different, each and every one.”

Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, all students with disabilities are entitled to free appropriate public education. To identify the most appropriate schooling, each student receives a federally mandated Individualized Education Program, which spells out requirements—from extra time on tests to occupational therapy sessions—that the public school district must fulfill and fund. Although some of the students at STEM3 Academy pay tuition, most are placed there for free through the Individualized Education Program.

The school’s unique premise has parents from all over clamoring to send kids there: One San Francisco family recently enrolled and relocated. A family from Hong Kong is considering the same move. The school has rolling admissions and accepts eligible students throughout the year.

As enrollment increases, STEM3 teachers will have to adhere to a growing set of Individualized Education Programs. Throughout any given day, students the receive personalized lessons that best fit their needs and help them thrive.

Soft jazz music plays in the background of teacher Colin Pritchard’s seventh and eighth grade math class. In a room of about 10 kids, a handful of projects are occurring simultaneously. Marco, a seventh grader, studies high school math from a textbook. Two students answer problems on notebook paper while wearing headphones. Anna, a new student, works on elementary math questions so the teacher can assess her skills.

The remaining students work on their own or in groups of two to construct a digital map of the school. First students walked around the campus with a trundle wheel, which tracks distance, to determine building dimensions. Now they’re implementing those figures into a computer program of their choosing.

The parameters of the assignment were broad, with the students encouraged to share among themselves the digital map programs they found most useful. While one pair put the final touches on their map, others struggle with how to convert their maps into files they can send through email.

“Turn it into a PNG or JPEG file. That’s what I did,” Cameron, a friendly eighth grader who will happily belt out a verse or two from the musical Hamilton, tells the group. As Cameron turns in his completed project, Pritchard asks if he’s confident the dimensions are accurate. Cameron affirms it but is happy to repeat the assignment if he made mistakes.

“I will master this,” Cameron says. “I’ll do it again and again.”

Middle school student Sammy takes measurements with a trundle wheel (left); Cameron constructed this digital map of the school. (Photos: Élishia Sharie)

After checking in on Cameron, the teacher mills about, giving students clues when they’re stuck and reminding them to stay on task when they get antsy.

Rather than teach a class solely on social skills, as many special education programs do, STEM3 Academy incorporates life skills into every subject. To encourage positive behavior, Pritchard has taken an idea from the Harry Potter series, in which the students at the magical school of Hogwarts are divided into four groups in a schoolwide competition. Pritchard separated his students into three groups, with individuals earning points that benefit their teammates.

Eleanor, an eighth grader who loves to sing and make jokes, earns one point for her team when she holds the door open for another student. Smiley, soft-spoken Dylan ups his team’s score by two points after he works diligently for a solid 15 minutes.

Although much of the reinforcement is positive, Pritchard addresses behavioral problems whenever they arise. When one student demands another stop mumbling, Pritchard reminds her to ask nicely. Another students tosses his open backpack on the ground, and Pritchard quietly requests that the student pick it up and try setting it down more gently.

“You need to treat your objects with respect,” Pritchard reminds the student as he places the backpack on the student’s desk. After two tries, the lime green backpack is zipped up and resting safely on the floor, as the other students, unperturbed, continue working.

It’s nearly 80 degrees in the San Fernando Valley by 10 a.m. Students slowly abandon backpacks and sweatshirts for their outdoor P.E. class. They begin by walking four laps around the campus’ two buildings and basketball courts, a total distance they’ve determined is roughly one mile. Some students walk the path at a fast clip, while others shuffle along, using the time to socialize with their peers.

Because gym class is often met with anxiety for students with learning differences, instructor Eric Shelley is slowly easing the students into more rigorous activities.

“We all know the kid who sat in the corner during gym class,” Shelley says. “Well, that’s a lot of these kids.” He considers the session a success as long as all of the kids are moving and engaged.

After completing the mile walk, students play soccer or foursquare. Mid-game, other students trickle out to the courtyard for their 15-minute morning break. The school doesn’t have a swing set, but that allows middle school students Eleanor and Anna to get creative. They’ve learned how to tie knots in Girl Scouts and have found a slab of wood and sturdy rope in the school’s innovation lab to construct their own swing and hang it from a tree branch.

Autism spectrum disorder is four to five times more common in boys than in girls, and the school’s gender ratio reflects that. Although Anna is new to the school, she and Eleanor have become fast friends, bound by both interests and gender. The girls practice translating Morse code as they take turns pumping their legs on the swing.

Middle school students Eleanor (left) and Anna play during morning break. (Video: Judd Frazier)

Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience bullying than the general population, according to the National Autism Association. But at STEM3, many of the students find friends thanks to their shared interests and struggles.

“When you see [our students], they’re going to look and sound fairly normal. But they’re in an environment that fosters that and fosters them feeling good about themselves,” said Susan Berman, the COO of the Help Group. “What we most commonly hear from parents is ‘My child now feels like they belong, they have friends, they’re excited, they want to go to school.’ ”

For Adam, a sixth grader with ADHD who dreams of becoming an entertainer and driving a Mercedes or a Toyota, transferring to STEM3 opened doors academically and socially. During morning break, Adam throws around a tennis ball with his classmates, an activity he wouldn’t have enjoyed at his last school, where he was often alone.

Every 10 seconds, Dash, a senior with shaggy blond hair and glasses, goes offline. He’s pretending to be a router, the small box that allows multiple computers or smartphones to use the same internet connection. When other students, also playacting as routers, attempt to hand off slips of paper addressed to fellow classmates, which represent email, Dash either tells them he’s offline or passes the slips along.

A few students were unenthused about the day’s AP Computer Science assignment, complaining that they wouldn’t be writing code. Instead, this task requires them to collaborate and work on spatial awareness, a cognitive skill that comes naturally to some but can be challenging for students with autism spectrum disorder. Students must arrange themselves throughout the classroom so that they can successfully pass the slip of paper along multiple student routers to the intended recipient without any of the students changing seats.

“[Our students] know how to code, but if they can’t relate in the workplace, they’re not going to be employable,” Berman said.

The primary goal of STEM3 is to foster success beyond high school. Roughly 35 percent of young people with autism do not transition from high school to a job or further education, according to a 2015 report out of Drexel University. An estimated 80 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed.

Much of the struggle to find employment stems from social struggles rather than lack of technical skill. Some people with autism spectrum disorder have inherent abilities that make them well-suited for careers in science and technology, especially computer programming.

“[Students with ASD] can have highly superior visual discrimination. That is the ability to tell difference very, very easily,” Crasnow says, noting that many people dismiss this ability as inconsequential. “That’s an exceptional gift. If you’re a software debugger, often there are very subtle differences you’re looking for, a comma instead of a period, a symbol missing or a letter missing. They will focus on those differences very quickly, whereas you or I might not.”

With an estimated 8.6 million STEM occupations available by 2018, the need for qualified workers continues to grow—and industries have started to turn to this population to fill the gaps.

Microsoft and SAP have developed employment programs designed to integrate people on the autism spectrum into their workforce. Along with actively seeking out workers with autism, they provide mentoring programs both on- and off-site to help employees navigate office politics and develop relationships with fellow workers.

Crasnow and his colleagues hope that STEM3 Academy can be the pipeline to these programs, Silicon Valley, and beyond.

High school students each lunch outside. (Photo: Élishia Sharie)

“OK, one more time,” science teacher Megumi Guillaume tells her biology class for the third time. She’s attempting to quiet her students to discuss the results from a lab in which students used iodine to test for the presence of starch in substances like pancake batter and potato. Many are distracted by the test tubes still bubbling in boiling water, while others sit silently with their heads resting on the lab table.

It’s not uncommon to see students hunched over, sitting on the floor, or pacing around the classroom, often owing to sensory processing issues. Although children with learning differences can succeed in public schools, many struggle to thrive in a typical environment. Instructors may not understand their unique needs or have little tolerance for some of the behavior that may be considered disruptive.

While the pacing would likely be deemed unacceptable at a typical school, STEM3 Academy teachers allow their students to do what’s comfortable for them as long as they’re listening.

Guillaume warns the students that if they turn in their assignments with incorrect results, they’ll lose points. The class snaps to attention.

Oriyah, a 10th grader, reads her lab results aloud, noting that the color of the pancake batter changed when iodine was added, indicating that it contained starch.

Now that the students have grasped the chemical aspect of this assignment, Guillaume is looking to incorporate other subjects into the lesson. As the students begin to test for the presence of sugars and enzymes in Jell-O, Guillaume plans out how she can incorporate the chemically treated gelatin into a math assignment that will culminate with a collaborative art project.

Even as students abandon their computer and science studies for a government class, math is never far from their minds. In a senior civics class, students run the numbers to ready themselves for a debate regarding the merits of minimum wage.

The group tasked with arguing in support of raising the minimum wage starts by looking up the federal minimum wage, calculating a yearly salary, and comparing that amount to the average cost of living.

“That’s literally not enough to survive,” senior Cullen says. Next, he calculates the number of hours a person earning the federal minimum wage would have to work every day to meet the average cost of living. The members of his group tap away on their laptops, writing out opening and closing statements, as they prepare to present their argument for the entire class.

Public speaking can be challenging for any student, but one of the hallmarks of autism is difficulties with speech and language, so a debate at STEM3 Academy is markedly different from those at typical schools.

Rather than standing before the class, the students stay seated, eyes glued to their computer screens as they deliver their arguments. Some rush through their speeches in a barely audible monotone, while others struggle to get out each word. But even as a few student spectators roll their eyes or let their attention stray, they allow their classmates to finish their speeches with little interruption.

Several students will soon put their public speaking skills to use, as they are preparing one-minute campaign speeches for the student council elections. Campaign posters cover the hallways. A middle schooler named Jack promises that he is “someone who is not egotistical” and that he has been endorsed by Yoda. Senior Stefanie’s campaign posters include the slogan “Vote Stefanie for class president, your choice is evident.” In fine print, she promises that donations made to her campaign are tax-deductible.

Middle school candidates get public speaking tips from teacher Eric Shelley, who also runs P.E. classes, during a school government club. Shelley reminds students to adopt a friendly manner and to come up with a campaign issue they can promise to their classmates to deliver on. He also reminds them that they may want to dress nicely for their speech, as gym shorts and T-shirts are the preferred uniform of many students.

“Like a suit and tie?” eighth grader Sammy asks.

Shelley pauses before telling him, “That would certainly leave an impression.”

Nearly an hour after school has ended, the school’s Innovation Lab and Maker’s Space—home to several 3-D printers, computers loaded with design software, and power tools—is bustling with activity. The high school robotics team gathers in the lab to prepare for a two-day mock competition in which they will guide their robot through obstacles and attempt to earn points by tossing a ball into a goal.

Cullen’s dad, Tony Hudgins, runs the robotics team. The resemblance between father and son is undeniable, from their stocky builds and wide smiles to their natural inclination to assert themselves as the leader of the group. Cullen was one of the first members of the robotics team. In 2015, the team entered the FIRST Robotics Competition, a national match against high school students, and won the Rookie All-Star Award.

“We actually had some people who recommended not to do this because it was too hard and they didn’t necessarily want us to fail,” Hudgins says, adding that the competitions are stressful, and one of the students always ends up crying. “But the thing is, they’ve come back from that, and that’s the important thing.… How they do in the competition is kind of secondary. The fact that they get there at all is really the achievement.”

High school robotics team members Cullen, Zach, and A.J. (from left) prepare their robot for an upcoming competition.
(Photo: Élishia Sharie)

As they prepare for the competition, the students put the final touches on their robot and rework the computer code to ensure it moves in the right direction. Hudgins urges each of the kids to try test-driving the robot and encourages rule-oriented Cullen to think outside the box and break course if necessary.

Students on the autism spectrum often respond well to rules, which is useful when it comes to coding. But the competitions represent more of a real-life scenario, in which pieces might break or obstacles pop up. Straying off course and finding creative solutions is encouraged.

“I was so proud,” Hudgins says of a time that Cullen broke the rules. “With this population, you have a very widespread array of capabilities and interests and limitations and inexperience.”

Those abilities and limitations become clear when it's time to take the robot outside for a final test run. The students stand clustered around the lab’s narrow doorway, as they are once again forced to focus on spatial awareness to get both themselves and the robot out the door and down a long hallway. Once outside, the students make a few final tweaks, replacing a perforated tube that caused the compressor to leak and tightening the robot's claws to better grasp a ball.

Confident with their results, the team is ready to pack it up for the day—but not without a final reminder: “It’s going to be really hot and stressful at the competition,” Hudgins says. “So don’t forget to put on deodorant.”

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