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ODU/EVMS Program Puts Autistic Teens in Robotics Lab

The idea for the experiment popped up in the email box of an assistant professor of engineering at Old Dominion University.

A tech company asked Chung-Hao Chen whether he knew any engineering graduates who were on the high-functioning end of autism, a disorder characterized by difficulties communicating and making relationships.

Chen thought it a bit odd, but a little Internet research revealed a few companies recruiting people with autism as computer programmers and product testers because of their attention to detail.

"Because autistic people are very focused on particular things, they can keep looking and looking for a problem without getting tired," Chen said. "When we design programs, it's tedious work. They seek the detail to fix the problem. They are very focused."

Chen had been searching for a way to encourage middle and high school kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, so this seemed like a perfect match.

He hooked up with Dr. Maria Urbano, who directs the Autism Spectrum Disorders Program for Older Adolescents & Young Adults at Eastern Virginia Medical School, to devise a 12-week program. High school students with and without the disorder would work alongside college engineering students to build small robots powered by computers.

While people on the autism spectrum often struggle to pick up social cues like sarcasm and facial expressions, they sometimes excel in understanding predictable systems. A few studies and observational anecdotes have shown that people with autistic traits have a higher aptitude for math and technology.

They are more likely to "get" machines, computer programs and technological systems because they lean toward the logical. So using something they like to get them to exercise something they have a hard time with - forming relationships - could make sense.

The experiment could lead to ways to help them transition into real-world work settings.

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Published on: July 1, 2013