After five years of teaching Autistic students with the School District of Philadelphia, Autism Expressed founder Michele McKeone learned that there was something glaringly missing from the curriculum: digital literacy.
“There’s nothing out there that’s really teaching them the life skills they need in a technology-driven society,” McKeone said, and that lack of education sets students up for low-wage jobs or worse, unemployment.
So McKeone, 31, set out to change that.
Using techniques and lessons she piloted in her own Autistic Support Classroom at South Philadelphia High, she developed an interactive curriculum to teach Autistic students how to use the Internet. It begins with the basics — What is the Internet? What is email? — and continues on to cover social media, online etiquette, issues of privacy and safety and so on. It also offers analytics for teachers and parents to see how students are progressing.
McKeone launched the platform, which she said is the first of its kind, in the fall of 2012 under the name Autism Expressed. Right now, nearly 20 organizations use it, including five schools in Philadelphia, the Washington, D.C. public library and a pediatric clinic in New Jersey, and the demand is growing: there’s a waiting list of about 200 parents and organizations who want to use the platform. McKeone and her three-person staff are working on getting an online payment system running so they can accept single-family subscriptions.
Autism Expressed is focused on high schoolers, but students as young as those in second grade are using it, said McKeone, who has a masters degree from Chestnut Hill College in special education and also participated in the 2011 GoodCompany Group social entrepreneurship accelerator.
The program’s user-base has broadened, too: the national disabilities-support organization United Cerebral Palsy uses it, and educators have suggested to McKeone that it would work for English language learners. She’s working on rebranding.
The hope, McKeone said, is that Autism Expressed will modernize special education. It’ll draw attention to the importance of these skills and provide a way to teach them. But first, McKeone, an Atlantic City native and now a South Philadelphian, is setting her sights on the city. She’s currently in talks with the School District to roll out Autism Expressed throughout the district.