Introducing children with autism to coding and VR with CASPA

Every year Dennis Publishing our parent company chooses a charity to support. This yearDennis employee Michael Barton brought CASPA to our attention.

The Children on the Autistic Spectrum Parents' Association (CASPA) was set up in 2002 and works with children, young people and families affected by autism. The charity currently works with over 350 families in south east London. Some of the support is an independent living skills programme for over 14s, including IT and coding.

Michael, who has high-functioning autism himself, attended his local CASPA centre when he was younger and has since gone on to become an ambassador for the charity, having been through its programme and left with a university degree in physics. He now works full-time at Dennis, and wrote a bit about autism for sister title Alphr here.

Introducing CASPA

Back in April, CASPA came into Dennis Publishing to present the charity's work. A young man called James presented a short animated story he had created using the animation tools in PowerPoint. It was layers of complex animation commands on two slides. No matter how good you think you are at PowerPoint, that isn't as straightforward as it sounds just try it. These set commands laid out in this way resulted in a Star Wars Tie Fighter shooting at a Battle Cruiser. A creative spark and an enthusiasm for tech, gaming and gadgets had somehow made office applications thrilling.

Inspired, I decided to read a little more on the subject and came across this story about Kyle Schwaneke. Kyle's experiences of growing up with autism, and the struggles in the job market as a result are well worth a read.

The two stories share similar beginnings, but we now have an opportunity to ensure there are more happy endings for children growing up with autism, to ensure they have the support and the opportunities to develop their passions and skills much earlier. We want to ensure that the likes of James don't fall into the 85% of autistic people not in full-time employment. There is much more we can do to bring that figure downwards and it's a great loss to us all if we fail.

A day of learning

Working with Michael Barton, CASPA director Helen Dyer and the team at Microsoft, we began collaborating around a simple idea. Could we set up a coding event and invite young adults from CASPA to learn a little more about what it is to code? We sketched out a plan to create an environment to inspire and engage, allowing children with autism to create and bring something to life. The aim is to help them experience something amazing and make them aware that there are many career paths they can pursue, and plenty of companies that want their skills.

Microsoft UK has been an amazing driving power in getting the programme off the ground, especially the Developer Experience and Academic Engagements team led by Andrew Webber, Lee Stott, James Griffin and Michael Vermeersch. The team has created two very exciting and bespoke sessions.

On Wednesday 6 July, Dennis is working in partnership with Microsoft to teach children with autism from CASPA how to code.

The day will be split into two different workshops. The first part will teach the children how to code on BBC micro:bit computers. The second sessions will be a VR experience using VISR cardboard headsets with Windows 10 phones, and the children will get to explore a virtual-reality garden and then create new objects to go within it. Finally the children will have a chance to use the new HTC Vive technology, which will fully immerse them into a state-of-the-art virtual world.

Broadening horizons

What are we hoping to achieve? This might be weird coming from Dennis Publishing's digital advertising director, but this is not a commercially led partnership. This is about raising awareness of organisations that are here to help young and old people with autism get the best opportunities in life through technology.

Hopefully the day will demonstrate how schools and communities can get support from the likes of Microsoft to inspire young minds to be the best they can be. We're committed to delivering a day of learning and discovery for everyone that will inspire these young and talented individuals.

Lead image: Michael Himbaeult, used under Creative Commons