By Dot Lucci, MEd, CAGS

Many teen and young adult participants at Aspire come with interests in the fields of STEM - science, technology, engineering and math. They have a desire to work as engineers, sports statisticians, or animators among other STEM careers. The content learning (i.e. “hard skills”) in these fields comes easy to them and they may even surpass some of their teachers in school! These interests can turn into careers/jobs; however, the hard skills are not enough in today’s competitive work force. Employers are looking for employees who can get along with co-workers, work under pressure, contribute to a team and think critically and problem solve. They need “soft skills” even more than the hard skills! Soft skills are defined as interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, communication and social skills, character traits, positive attitudes and work ethics -- basically social-emotional intelligence. Soft skills help employees navigate the human aspects of the work environment such as getting along with diverse colleagues, being a team player, handling conflicts and achieving group goals.

All Aspire programs focus on the 3S’s: self-awareness, social competency and stress management -- the soft skills necessary for future employment. Nine teens and young adults are enrolled in a new group at Aspire called Design Challenge. In this group participants are addressing the 3S’s as well as learning the principles of User-Centered Design (UCD) and “fail fast”. UCD is a design process that starts with how the human end-user will understand or use the tool, website, app that is being researched or developed, while “fail fast” is a strategy that involves doing/action versus talking/thinking. It’s about trying a strategy or idea and assessing whether it worked or didn’t work and using the feedback to quickly adapt and change. By enrolling in this group individuals will be participating at the CHATTER event at Northeastern University on June 9 & 10th. This event is the culminating event for the Design Challenge Group.

CHATTER stands for Collaboration Highlighting Autism Through Technology for Emotion and Relationships. This event is made possible through the collaboration of Northeastern University Computational Behavioral Science Lab, Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) and Aspire while funding for the event is provided by the Matty-O Foundation. CHATTER’s mission is to build a community of stakeholders in autism research that actively includes Autistic people* and celebrates the Neurodiversity that they bring to the table. Research about and for autistic people is often conducted without seeking input from autistic people! CHATTER is an event created to address this problem by opening dialogue and building relationships between everyone who is a stakeholder in autism research and technology development. Stakeholders may include: researchers, clinicians, autistic individuals, caregivers, engineers, designers, programmers etc. The two day event is about Neurodiversity, inclusion, community building and collaboration with autistic people leading the way, speaking for themselves and generating ideas for research, technology, and tools!

On the first day there will be three different panel symposiums addressing common challenges facing autistic persons. One panel will address anxiety and emotional regulation, while another will address social dynamics and interpersonal relationships and the third will address community participation and access. Each panel will have an autistic person leading the way with other stakeholders (i.e. researchers, engineers, clinicians etc) represented. Each panel will follow with a discussion period and after hearing the panels, audience members, symposium speakers and Design Challenge participants will create teams to address one of the challenge areas that resonated with them. These teams will stay together for the second day. The second day involves the active use of UCD and soft skills as teams decide on ways to address the challenge being addressed! Also on the second day there will be technology demonstrations of various apps and tools already being used in the autism community.

The Design Challenge group prepares participants to be active at the CHATTER event. During the group participants are presented with a variety of “design challenges” and work in teams to design and build things. Over time the focus of each group shifts from “just building things” to designing things that meet the needs of another person. Every session the group members are reconfigured so participants can be flexible and learn how to work with different people. The Design Challenge group is socially challenging yet also engaging, motivating and fun because it is a related STEM/preferred area of interest. Participants enjoy the topic areas and tasks while being challenged by collaborating, being flexible, taking perspective, incorporating another person’s idea, managing frustration, and “failing fast” among others. The CHATTER event will, in some ways be very similar to our group, thinking about UCD while also very different. Hopefully by participating in the Design Challenge group the teens/young adults will be better prepared to be an active participant at the CHATTER event. Hope to see you there!

*How we talk about persons with disabilities/differences can be a sensitive issue. At the CHATTER event identity-first language and person-first language will be used. If you want to read more about language use check out this article.

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