Why coding for special education students computes

Students on the autism spectrum show a particular ability to debug software
By: | February 7, 2020
Coding and STEM activities for special education students is a regular activity for a growing number of elementary school students in Washington's Vancouver Public Schools, as teachers have integrated computer science into everyday instruction.Coding and STEM activities for special education students is a regular activity for a growing number of elementary school students in Washington's Vancouver Public Schools, as teachers have integrated computer science into everyday instruction.

The national demand for STEM workers creates a unique opportunity for educators to develop coding and STEM activities for special education students, says Ellis Crasnow, director of STEM3 Academy, a Los Angeles-area school for students with special needs.

He notes that college students on the autism spectrum are more likely to choose STEM majors than their neurotypical peers. “These kids are drawn toward tech and STEM pursuits,” Crasnow says. “Given the imbalance of huge demand and small supply, it makes perfect sense for them to study STEM so they have a pathway to college and success.”

For instance, students on the autism spectrum have shown a particular ability to debug software because their tendency to have enhanced visual and spatial skills enable them to spot imperfections in cascading lines of codes, he says.


Related story: How a teacher codes with special needs students who are deaf


Also because of these abilities, students with autism have a knack for responsive design—ensuring websites function well on various devices.

He and his educators are looking for other areas where these skills will give students a competitive technological advantage.

“As we all become more and more dependent on screens that display information, the need for individuals with sharper and more defined visual and spatial skills is becoming more and more important,” he says.

Crasnow’s school introduces coding for special education students in kindergarten, using Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding language. Middle school curricula continues with Python, which introduces analytics.

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Programming leads to robotics, which has become a “critical” activity at the school because it teaches collaboration skills to students who tend to prefer working individually, he says.

Students teams develop robots that will perform a specific task, such as lifting and stacking boxes. One student designs the robot, while teammates focus on building and programming it.

“The three of them have to talk to each other—you can’t do the wiring without knowing the design and you can’t program without knowing what the robot’s going to do,” Crasnow says. “We live in an age of intense automation, and I want our students to be a part of that movement.”

Desirable difficulties in coding for special education students

When coding for special education students becomes a regular activity, it can have widespread benefits, says Leigh Ann DeLyser, executive director of CSforALL.

Coding for special education students at the STEM3 Academy in Los Angeles focuses on providing computer science career skills and job pathways.

Coding for special education students at the STEM3 Academy in Los Angeles focuses on providing computer science career skills and job pathways.

“We see students with disabilities having increased engagement in computer science classrooms, and we see them wanting to use better math and ELA skills to complete computer science projects,” says DeLyser, whose organization works in a consortium to promote more comprehensive computer science education.

She recommends that computer science instructors not be left out when teachers are implementing a student’s IEP in various classrooms.

How to incorporate coding

8 smart practices for teaching computer science into special ed classrooms

  1. Treat computer science as a core discipline, not an elective.
  2. Ensure computer science teachers are involved in creating and modifying curriculum along with special ed teachers.
  3. Provide PD on techniques for integrating computer science into special education.
  4. Build computer science programs around special education students’ abilities, which can include enhanced visual and spatial skills.
  5. Consider robotics for encouraging collaboration (which can be challenging for students who work better individually) and building social skills.
  6. Design a scaffolded curriculum to support students of different learning abilities.
  7. Have educators make it clear to students that asking for help is not a sign of failure.
  8. Remind teachers not to simply give the answers to a special needs student who is struggling.

“A lot of the time people think of computer science as an elective,” DeLyser says. “Treating it as a core discipline can make the accessibility barrier lower for students and teachers.”

Computer science teachers can start making accommodations by designing a curriculum that’s more carefully scaffolded for students of different learning abilities. Key to this approach is making it clear to students that asking for help or clarity is not a sign of failure.


More from DA: How robots excel at access for students with autism


At the same time, teachers should resist the temptation to give special needs students the answers to questions when they’re struggling, DeLyser says.

For instance, the programs students use to debug software can sometimes give unclear reports and confusing answers. When this occurs, teachers should nudge students with special needs to figure out ways to decipher those reports, such as by doing an internet search. Then teachers should give students feedback on the process they used to find the solution.

“There’s a tendency to want to help students with disabilities leapfrog over obstacles,” DeLyser says. “But when they encounter difficulties and the challenge of solving the puzzle is part of the learning, building a step over an obstacle doesn’t necessarily benefit students.”

At Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES, a regional educational services agency based in Ithaca, New York, coding for special education students began a few years ago with acquiring adaptive hardware and software.

Next came professional development in the CSforALL model and other techniques of integrating computer science into special education, says Jeffrey Matteson, the district’s superintendent/CEO.

The agency also revamped the library at the K-12 special education school it operates on campus. A makerspace, which serves as the hub for computer science instruction, now includes work with drones and virtual and augmented reality.

“Computer science has the potential to make a young person fully able,” Matteson says. “It removes the identifier of a disability when a young person can create through computer science and in the virtual world.”

No screens in these STEM activities for special education students

A multiyear coding pilot in a select group of elementary-level, special education classrooms in Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools is now going off-line.

One of the best outcomes of teaching coding in special education classes in Vancouver Public Schools has come from the trial-and-error process, which increases self-confidence and shows students how to overcome mistakes.

One of the best outcomes of teaching coding in special education classes in Vancouver Public Schools has come from the trial-and-error process, which increases self-confidence and shows students how to overcome mistakes.

It’s not being phased out—teachers, rather, are “unplugging” by supplementing computer science instruction from Coding.org with hands-on activities that don’t require a screen, such as playing “zombie tag” with Sphero robots.

This work helps students develop fine motor skills as well as social skills such as having two-way conversations, taking turns and collaborating on game strategies, says Meagan Williams, the instructional technology facilitator and former special education classroom teacher who has been leading the pilot program.


More from DA: How teacher coaching boosts special ed achievement


“Students want those tactile opportunities and those sensory responses,” Williams says. “This gives them opportunities to do manipulative work in the real space in front of them, to take things a character is doing on a screen and figure out a way to make it lifesize.”

Teachers have used playing cards to show students how to decipher and create patterns. Classes have also built mazes for an exercise in which students give verbal and nonverbal codes to help a classmate navigate to the end.

And within the curriculum currently being developed by Williams and her team, there’s a lesson where students will code the Sphero robot to paint patterns as the devices.

“This gives them a chance to use the coding lang they know and have conversations with peers,” Williams says. “It’s giving them a bridge to get to general ed in a new way.”

One of the best outcomes of the pilot has come from the trial-and-error process of coding itself. Students are better able to overcome mistakes, and this increases self-confidence.

“It’s helping students share their fears and anxieties openly,” Williams says. “They’re not becoming as frustrated—they’re saying they’re stuck and they’re helping each other.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior editor.


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