Start-up opens digital door for students with autism

Michele McKeone, creator of Autism Expressed, works with student Sheldon Banks.
Michele McKeone, creator of Autism Expressed, works with student Sheldon Banks. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA One of the hottest start-ups in the city sprang up in an unlikely place - a fourth-floor classroom at South Philadelphia High.

In between lesson plans and parent conferences, teacher Michele McKeone has attracted some major buzz, along with sizable grants from the University of Pennsylvania and the Milken Family Foundation, attention from national media, and a start-up-of-the-year prize at the Philadelphia Geek Awards.

Autism Expressed, her fledgling business, teaches digital skills to students with autism. It is the first program of its kind on the market, experts believe, and one McKeone hopes will modernize special-education services.

It began in a way familiar to many teachers. She saw a need in her classroom, so she filled it.

McKeone studied digital media at the University of the Arts before earning her master's degree in education. When she began teaching in 2008, she was surprised that, although her main charge was preparing students for life after graduation, there was nothing in the curriculum about understanding and using technology.

So she improvised - teaching her students about e-mail, Web browsing, video editing, even coding. They took to it with enthusiasm and skill, and in 2010, she entered a group of students in a computer fair.

"It was not the Special Olympics," she said. "It was a highly competitive, very regulated event."

They won third place. Soon, Philadelphia School District officials began asking McKeone to talk in teacher trainings about her experiences. She spoke frequently on teaching tech skills to special-education students - with an eye not just toward life skills but also toward building marketable skills.

"You have to raise expectations," McKeone said. "There's no reason I can't teach students coding if they can learn e-mail. It's about sequencing. It's about executive function."

According to recent research, about half of all young people with autism are neither employed nor enrolled in postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school - a sobering statistic, given the large autistic population.

Despite their challenges, McKeone's students are often extremely capable in the digital world - not just with the basic tools and social-media platforms their peers enjoy, but with more sophisticated applications, like HTML, the language used to build Web pages.

"HTML is logical, and we'd be working on it, and they would pick up the little things I wouldn't see," McKeone said. "And even if students are doing a vocational program, they still need to be able to e-mail, to fill out a job application online."

David Mandell - who directs Penn's Center for Mental Health Policy and conducts research on improving outcomes for people with autism - believes McKeone's program is vital.

"It is filling an important niche," said Mandell, who now sits on McKeone's advisory board. "There's an extraordinary need. People didn't even know that there was a need until this program came along."

Slowly, McKeone began turning the things she was doing for her own students into a subscription-based business that could eventually be used by schools, districts, organizations, and students at home.

She wrote lessons, then won one business competition, then another. What became Autism Expressed evolved on nights and weekends. She hired designers and developers, checked e-mail during prep periods, spoke to clients after school was over.

Trained in digital skills and as a teacher, McKeone, who is 31 and lives in Fishtown, had no business background. But she has had to come up to speed quickly.

"I really empathize with my students," McKeone said of acquiring business skills. "I didn't have the language for that sort of culture, that sort of world."

The program has a growing following. Since it launched in 2013, McKeone has inked contracts with public libraries in Washington; United Cerebral Palsy; the Philadelphia school system; and Bancroft, a New Jersey-based organization that educates people with disabilities.

On a recent day, McKeone's autistic support class at South Philadelphia High waded into an Autism Expressed lesson on sharing information on the Internet. McKeone used a smartboard and her high-energy demeanor to lead seven young men through the material. There was a mix of class discussion and student activities, with the teens breaking out into dances when they answered questions correctly.

"What can strangers on the Internet do with your post?" McKeone asked the class.

One eager boy's hand shot up. "They can see what you post," he said.

"They can share it with other strangers," another boy volunteered.

The Autism Expressed narrator chimed in electronically. "To be safe, you must keep some information about yourself private."

Leslie Barretta met McKeone two years ago at an event for female entrepreneurs. She was immediately fascinated by Autism Expressed - Barretta's son Ben has autism, and she knew firsthand the program's attraction.

Ben, who is now 10, became a beta tester. His mom became a fan.

"It's organized in a way where he could digest it in chunks and build. He's getting badges, he's getting feedback. It's using the various senses," Barretta said. "It really kicks in for these kids on a multitude of levels."

Barretta was struck by how the program resonated with Ben and has pushed for his school district, Lower Merion, to adopt it.

"This makes the kids feel like they got information that's important," Barretta said, "and it gives them a bridge to other kids - and that's something that's not so easy."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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