Despite being diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of two, Oliver Thornton was fortunate enough to lead a normal childhood. Both his older and younger brother had also been diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), so the family knew they could cope with the challenges and the struggles they would encounter. Thornton was able to take on more tutors and a speech therapist to help him at school. Otherwise, he was able to play tennis with his brother across the US and do homework like any other kid.
But it was an entrepreneurship class in his last semester in college that made him realise that his life had been anything but ordinary compared with the scores of children in the US and around the world that also live with ASD. Researching the topic for the class showed Thornton that adults with autism were underemployed in the workforce (80% according to him) despite the academic credentials of the candidate. ‘[I]f you look at it, even though there’s a lot of funding for autism-related research, less than 2% of that funding goes towards vocational training programs,’ he said referring to medical aspects having more of the focus.
As a result, Thornton started Coding Autism, an initiative that helps adults with ASD with career skills in the world of coding. Starting in April of 2016, the programs allow young and old to get into a coding career where the team put together ‘a coding curriculum and school exclusively for autistic learners to learn web development, cybersecurity and other tech-related skills to help them find meaningful employment in the tech industries.’ Their programs offer participants the chance to improve their online coding as well as their social skills in the workplace , as well as gain further career coaching in areas like resume development and interview preparation. ‘The idea’ Thornton said, ‘is to counterbalance traditional neuro-typical styles of education in favour of education more fit for people with autism.’
Since it’s inception Thornton has seen a great reception from parents and companies alike for the crucial skill-sets that people with ASD can offer. ‘There was also a huge positive trend of tech companies hiring autistic talent given the positive characteristics that they bring.’ Thornton said, listing corporations like Microsoft, EY (Ernst and Young), SAP and HP. He has also faced very little pushback on his venture so far from CEOs of companies looking to hire the best talent.
In contrast, India still has a long way to go to show greater understanding for people who live with ASD. According to a survey cited by India Today in 2013, 10 million children live with the disorder and have little in the way of assistance when they graduate from high-school. A crucial first step was taken by the Government when it included ASD into the The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016. However, much is still dependent on charitable societies to improve vocational training for those with ASD, particularly in the tech field.
The Hindu reported earlier last year that the most receptive sectors were in hospitality and retail though there is also the Bubbles Centre which has focused on softer IT skills for adults with autism since June last year as well as the Aaadhar vocational centre in Haryana.
It looks like more and more within India are agreeing with Coding Autism, where they value skills like an attention to detail, repetition, introversion and ‘the tendency to be extreme optimists’ as Thornton put it.
‘Those skill-sets are what you find in typical software engineers or your quality assurance tester or your cybersecurity specialist who’s behind a computer analysing data. When they hone into something they’re passionate about, they tend to be very good at it.’ Thornton said. One company noted a 2% error rate where similar rates among other coders without ASD were as high as 30%. ‘They believe that it’s because they have such a keen eye for details in code that they notice things that other people don’t notice.’
Thornton believes that India too can benefit a growing acceptance for ASD around the world (sometimes ascribed to ‘the Sheldon effect’ after the popular character from Big Bang Theory) as ‘it makes sense to start push positive awareness for what autism is because so it impacts so many people’s everyday lives.’
Coding Autism has raised $100,000 and have a waitlist for those looking to get onto the program. ‘Our goal is to have our 4 coding bootcamps and 16 workshops next year in both LA and San Fran.’ Thornton said. Interestingly, a lot of early investment in the equity campaign came from India following a pitch they made on Sony’s highly-rated program ‘Meet the Drapers’. They’re now hoping to go through a seasoned accelerator program or find a funder to take it to the next growth stage. Which would be child’s play for an eternal optimist.