From the trenches: Snowflakes Autism Support Code Club

By Raul Portales. Posted

Snowflakes Autism Support started a Code Club for autistic children and their siblings in 2018. Located inside the Holywell Community Centre in Swords, it runs monthly and can accommodate up to ten children

Snowflakes is a charity based in North Dublin, created and run by parents of autistic children. The main aim of the group is to organise activities for the children and their families, as well as to create a support network. Some examples of such activities are messy play, brix club, swimming lessons, horse riding, family days out, and such like.

The idea to include a ‘Learn to code’ activity into the offering was there for a long time. After all, computers are a common interest of autistic people. But an idea is not enough, you need a champion: meet Trevor.

Trevor is the current volunteer coordinator of Snowflakes, and always tries to find new ways to engage people into starting new activities or helping with existing ones. And he kept asking me.

I have been a member of Snowflakes for a while. I have two autistic children and I am also autistic myself, which I found out after the diagnosis of my first child. I wanted to give something back and this activity is something that really appealed to me. I love teaching (I even taught at the University for a term) and I thought it could be a challenging and rewarding activity. My own children are still too young to participate, but I hope they will eventually try it.

Snowflakes Autism Support Code Club

The story so far

The ‘Learn to code’ idea ended up taking the shape of a Code Club. Given that Snowflakes requires membership to participate, we couldn’t really start a CoderDojo, but both are very similar. We’ve used the materials from Code Club since day one, and while we are quite flexible and encourage kids to do their own project, I have discovered that the children find the structure of the projects in the Code Club reassuring and organised.

The other big benefit of being part of Code Club is that it provides a sense of belonging to a community. There are plenty of Code Clubs and CoderDojos, and they are the same activities other children do, just in a slightly different setting.

As the club goes, Trevor has settled into the role of the champion, taking care of all the logistics, organising registrations, and many other small things, while I have settled into the role of the mentor, picking projects, bringing new ideas, and going around helping the children.

We have been running the Code Club for over a year now. Some kids try it and decide that it’s not for them, but there’s a good core of them that are regulars and really passionate about coding.

Special challenges

Autism is very diverse – which is why it’s called a spectrum – and no two individuals are the same. We used to say that ‘if you’ve met a person with autism, you’ve met a person with autism’.

Obviously, hosting a Code Club for autistic children comes with some challenges and, as parents of such children, we were ready. 

One key difference from other Code Clubs is that we recommend parent supervision, especially if a child needs significant support. We are more than happy to have the parent in the club, and some of them have discovered that they like coding too.

Autism usually comes with sensory processing difficulties, so some children need movement breaks (like running around the room every 20 minutes), others are sensitive to sound, so they wear noise-cancelling headphones. All in all, it’s about letting each child have whatever means of support they need to be comfortable.

Another common trait is to miss nonverbal clues, invade personal space, or need things to be explained very clearly. These are all things that are easy to accommodate if you know in advance.

Routines are worth mentioning. Most autistic people like routines and can get stressed if changed – especially without preparation – so we try to keep things quite stable. We try to run the club on the last Thursday of the month, at the same time. We start with announcements, look at the state of the projects (some children push their project at home), plan the work for the day, reserve time for Show and Tell at the end, and when possible we assign the same laptop to the same child over sessions.

Show and Tell is very interesting. It helps with the social aspect of the club, which is good for any child, but for us, given how difficult it can be to learn and practice socialisation skills, it’s a great exercise and also a self-esteem boost.

Special children are special

However, that’s only half of the picture. Autistic children are well-equipped to make the most of a Code Club, and they are amazing at it.

Let me tell you about special interests. If an autistic person gets interested in something, there’s no middle ground, we will learn everything about it. Special interests are very diverse: trains, dinosaurs, Pokemon, juggling, and so on. But computers are usually a special interest, and the intensity of a special interest is an amazing driving force.

There are other traits that are also handy for writing code. It is common to be very literal; and that is precisely what programming is about, telling the computer exactly what to do. Another one is to be very logical, which is also useful when trying to read code. Extreme attention to detail is another common autistic trait, and a very useful one for a developer. Even more, autistic people can hyperfocus, which is like being in the zone, but better.

Looking at the future

In an ideal world, our Code Club should not need to exist. All Code Clubs and Dojos can provide the support these children need. I am well aware that not everyone can have a ball pool at their club, but most likely you won’t need one. Most of the accommodations are easy. It’s just a matter of having more awareness.

I also want to give a hats-off to the people of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, who actively asked me to collaborate on the accessibility guidelines for Code Club/CoderDojo (that you can read more about this issue), as well as participate on the recommendations for Coolest Projects, on which two of our members exhibited past year.

As a closing note, we recently had our first external volunteer – a colleague from work – and after his first session he told me that it was easy, everyone is different, we just have to be flexible and meet each child where they are. He also ensured that it was a great experience, signing for next month straight away.

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