Upskilling, a life hack
Chennai-based HashHack Code has spent the lockdown teaching coding to people on the Autism spectrum
“Being in their own environment helps neurodiverse people, including those with Autism and Down Syndrome, perform better. Remote working conditions are ideal for them, so, it makes sense that they do their learning remotely as well,” says Manu Sekar, the founder of HashHack Code. Over the past few months, this informal, Chennai-based outfit has been familiarising its special needs students with the basics of coding through online classes, uninterrupted by lockdown.
Manu’s surmise is neither idle nor overambitious: he mentions proudly a former student who recently launched his own web services business. “We currently have 45 students from eight to 34 years old,” he says, adding that each student is taught individually through one-on-one online sessions, the format for which is deliberately kept open-ended. The key, he stresses, lies in understanding each individual’s pace of learning, “and letting them set the pace for us”.
With the flow
This is something HashHack Code has been doing even before they set out to teach people with special needs. “In 2016-17, we had begun by working with marginalised women — upskilling them, teaching them coding and finding them jobs,” says Manu, adding, “One of our clients back then had a daughter with autism, who was interested in learning code. A couple of other parents, too, wanted to see if we could help [teach their children].”
From that first student, to three more, to 45 now, the team took their time taking new pupils. “We did not have any research on autism, or how to teach people with autism. We just tried to understand each person’s needs and went with that,” Manu states. So it is not a formal education programme, but it does teach the students enough to provide for some employment options.
Since the setup is an informal one, HashHack Code operates not with “teachers”, but with “mentors”, a lot of whom are college students. An advantage of having student mentors, Manu says, is in the rapport that is struck between the one who learns and the one who teaches.
“It is not a student-teacher relationship that we try to project. We prefer a peerlearning environment. Especially among our older students, being helped in their projects by someone closer to their age makes them feel comfortable and learn faster.” Projects are many, since HashHack code believes in experiential learning instead of lectures, and teaches its students by making them practically try things out. “This format translated more easily to online learning, when we made the switch during lockdown,” adds Manu.
Manu is hopeful that this system helps the mentor. “Most of them are with us for about six to eight months, and will be joining official workplaces soon. I hope that having worked with neurodiverse people makes them more sensitive colleagues. The idea is for them to develop empathy and acceptance before joining the workforce.” Understanding different needs and helping people fit into the workforce, he points out, is an important trait, even if it isn’t a technical skill.