Student group helps children with autism disorders learn how to build websites

Five men work on a computer.

A tech-savvy group of UWM students recently helped a group of elementary age children diagnosed on the spectrum of autism by teaching them some computer science.

The children built their own websites, with the help of PantherHacks, a UWM student organization focused on innovation and the development of technical and professional skills.

Two years ago, PantherHacks was awarded a grant from Google to address a student population that was in need of assistance and that may find it difficult to get a job.

Dietenberger, a UWM instructor and advisor to this team of IT students and Student Affairs Information and Technology Services interns, shared several stories of groups the team was interested in helping, but it was a video from Islands of Brilliance that stood out the most to PantherHacks.

Islands of Brilliance is a Milwaukee based organization that assists children and young adults on the autism spectrum with learning experiences that may help them to become more independent as adults.

“That’s who we wanted to work with,” said Ilian Iliev, one of the student leaders in PantherHacks, who hosted a five-day seminar for children from Islands of Brilliance.

Second year of project

The first year that PantherHacks worked alongside children from Islands of Brilliance, they worked on computer game design. Now in the second year of the project, the PantherHacks team worked on web-page construction.

The PantherHacks team built a learning outline they used to instruct these third- to fifth-grade students in the construction of websites on WordPress, the most-used platform to create webpages on the internet.

The program included plugins and other tools. The instruction also included the placement of headers and text, along with the insertion of pictures and video of the students’ choosing.

PantherHacks and Islands of Brilliance shared the successes of their students with the parents after four days of instruction on DemoDay.

Demo Day was an event that brought together the students and their parents for a celebration to showcase the accomplishments of the children. The work that they had completed over the course of the seminar was on display, and the parents were able to look over the new websites their children had built.

The websites the children built are showcased on the PantherHacks website. Subjects of these pages include running, favorite presidents, even an NFL site.

Hoping to improve job skills

With the success of the PantherHacks team, Iliev hopes to have Islands of Brilliance build upon his work and instruct others in the building of websites for companies that may be seeking employees who can code for them.

The Islands of Brilliance organization works with 300 to 400 autistic people each year. Dietenberger and Iliev both believe that this outreach can have a tremendous impact on the large number of people who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum and who are unemployed or underemployed.

“It was quite a challenge for them in the beginning,” said Iliev. “But they adapted, they learned quite well, quite quickly.”

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