Autism, coding and VR with Microsoft and CASPA

It’s a warm summer morning in the Den – Dennis Publishing’s breakout area typically used for drinks, relaxation and table tennis. Today, the table-tennis table has been moved to one side, and the Rock Band equipment is stacked neatly in the corner, out of the way. In their place, several representatives from Microsoft and VISR are setting up a series of Windows tablets and cardboard headsets.

The relative calm will soon be broken by the arrival of 22 children from CASPA – the Children on the Autistic Spectrum Parents’ Association – Dennis Publishing’s chosen charity of the year. They fill the room with great excitement, and take their seats at the table.

This is a little out of the usual for CASPA, as the charity’s founder Helen Dyer tells me when I catch a five-minute chat with her later that day. “It is pretty different to what they’d do at CASPA,” she tells me. “At CASPA, the pure focus is on developing social and communication skills and enabling them to feel that they’re worthy to be in this world, and that it’s okay to be who they are. So we do things that are leisure activities – drama, sports, crafts, arts, trampolining, sailing, fun things like that – all underpinned with the staff facilitating their social and communication skill development.”

“The relative calm will soon be broken by the arrival of 22 children from CASPA – the Children on the Autistic Spectrum Parents’ Association – Dennis Publishing’s chosen charity of the year.”

That’s not to say that all the children are new to the idea of coding – many of them are gamers in their leisure time, and at least one has brought his own smartphone headset and BBC micro:bit to code with – but the aim here is to tackle the disconnect between being a consumer and being a creator. “I started getting texts yesterday from parents saying ‘he is so excited about this’ or ‘she can’t wait to get there,’” Dyer tells me. The hope is that the day will inspire a passion for coding that will see them pursuing a career in an industry that could really use their unique skills.

That should be an easy fit, but it often isn’t. As Dyer tells me, despite having an awful lot to offer the modern workplace, people with autism are poorly represented, with some 85% of adults on the spectrum without full-time employment.

“People with autism are poorly represented with some 85% of adults on the spectrum without full-time employment”

This is something that our co-hosts Microsoft has sought to address with their own diversity policy, and part of the reason they’re on hand to help. Dave Coplin – envisionment officer at Microsoft (“my job is about the future of humanity, and if it is, I needed a job title with a certain amount of pomposity,” he jokes) – tells me that this is very much the case. “Diversity is itself a spectrum,” he says, explaining how Microsoft started work on a neural-diversity program, keen on harnessing the skills that those on the autistic spectrum have. “We thought, well, ‘the skills they have far outweigh the accommodation difficulties we’d have – why would we exclude these people from our workplace?”

It’s that kind of optimism that is on display today, and plenty of it. The children, aged eight to 14, are divided into two groups for morning and afternoon sessions. I follow the first group, who are going to be given an experience in VR. On the table is a CASPA-branded Google Cardboard for every child, with lenses provided by games company VISR. Co-founder Lindsay West tells me later that the children had some enthusiastic feedback about how to make their devices better.

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The children are tasked with drawing something to appear within the VR garden that they’re working with, and the diligently get to work, before it’s announced that the previously-closed-off room in the corner contains a fully working HTC Vive, kindly donated for the day by HTC. A queue quickly forms as the children get a chance to explore Green Fingers – a calm garden environment designed by VISR and Microsoft in just 11 days. I have a brief go on it myself, and it involves dropping trees and small buildings into the world to customise your serene environment. I place a beehive down, kneel down and marvel at the bees flying over my head. You’ll be able to have a go on this eventually – I was told it will go on the Steam VR store, with profits going to CASPA when it’s finished.

Lee Stott, CTO of academic engagement at Microsoft, says that Green Fingers was designed to appeal to CASPA’s children and encourage creativity. “One of our key goals working with CASPA was to try and build an environment that made children question what things are, and how they were created,” Stott explains. “There are various different maps to start off – some are heavily populated with trees, some very open in terms of beaches.”

The aim was to get the children thinking about the potential of the island, and they’re suitably impressed. The first player’s reaction to the garden is simple: “woah”. Later on, I hear another of the children telling Stott that if they managed to build this in 11 days, then they could easily make a game that’s better than Call of Duty: Black Ops III. High praise indeed. “It was quite an interesting comment,” Stott modestly admits.

After a lunch break, I follow the group up for the second part of the day, where each child is loaned a BBC micro:bit and given instructions to code a simple “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game. Following the tutorial, one by one, they succeed in making their game – and set about refining it further. It’s genuinely heartening to see.

“Later on, I hear another of the children telling Stott that if they managed to build this in 11 days, then they could easily make a game that’s better than Call of Duty: Black Ops III”

At the end of the day, there’s no doubt the day’s mission has proved successful: a show of hands confirms that a good proportion of the children are planning on taking away the lessons learned here and exploring further. Whether or not that ultimately leads them to a fulfilling tech career is another matter of course, but the important thing is that they know the opportunities are there and the tech community welcomes their skillset. As Dyer says, that can be revelatory for some of them. “It unlocks them,” she says. “It unlocks their interests, their passions. They can communicate about it, because they absolutely love it. They see the intricacies, the details, the predictability of it all.”

“We work in an industry where the kind of skills that are presented – broadly speaking – on the autistic spectrum are in high demand and high value,” says Coplin. That kind of attitude demonstrates that CASPA’s aims are beginning to line up with the world of technology, but there is still some way to go. As Dyer says, “we know our children are capable of being employed, are capable of doing many different kinds of jobs, but the journey to get there – because of their social and communication difficulties – is very, very arduous.”

To find out more about Dennis Publishing’s charity of the year, CASPA, visit their official website here. 

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