After her son Colby experienced seizures and was diagnosed with a number of health problems, Aisha Williams contacted Families Helping Families NOLA, a resource center for people with disabilities and their families.
The nonprofit operates in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, ensuring that people with disabilities are included in school, work and recreational activities, and experience the highest quality of life possible.
With the organization’s help, Williams was able to navigate the next steps of her son’s life. She also landed a job there as a transition specialist. That was nearly 11 years ago. Now, Williams is the executive director and the driving force behind a new program that teaches computer programming to people with autism.
She was once again inspired by Colby, 22, along with her two other sons — Marlin, 17, and Tristan, 13.
“My three boys are all on the autism spectrum. However, they love video gaming, and they love troubleshooting,” Williams said.
She came up with the idea for a coding program after stumbling across Operation Spark, which provides software development programs to “low-opportunity individuals.” She thought it would be a good fit for her boys, or for anyone with autism who is interested in coding. (Her daughter Gabriella, 25, already completed the Operation Spark program.)
Williams contacted Operation Spark and suggested a collaboration. Months later, in January 2019, they launched a pilot program that proved to be a success.
“It’s been rolling ever since,” Williams said.
The two organizations, which have since partnered with LSU Health’s Human Development Center, are now accepting applications for the spring 2021 session.
The six-week program, “Coding for Youth with Autism — Pathway Out of Poverty,” trains and places graduates into well-paying coding and software development jobs. The training taps into the potential of those with autism, who often have neurological strengths in the fields of logic, data organization and visual learning.
“I really pushed for an inclusive program where our young adults could take a coding class with peers of their same age who do not have disabilities or autism, with additional support,” Williams said. “Because if our kids get jobs and have to be out in a physical space, we want them to already be comfortable with that.”
Coding for Youth with Autism comprises various levels, so if students are unable to complete the whole six-week program, they are still employable based on what they have learned so far. LSU Health helps them secure jobs.
“We have so many folks that are capable of making a livable wage and being productive citizens, through meaningful employment,” Williams said.
Annette Keeler’s son Ricky Robin, 19, was entering his senior year of high school and studying web design when he participated in the program. Robin, a highly functioning man with Asperger’s syndrome, hopes to pursue a career in software and video game design.
“He has been interested in computers and video games since the age of 2,” Keeler said, noting that many of Robin’s school research papers have focused on popular game designers. “He has demonstrated a talent in coding and programming for the last five years or so.”
Keeler, a single mom with a lack of reliable transportation and a low income, searched for educational opportunities that would interest her son and also offer him guidance.
Families Helping Families felt that Robin would be a good fit for the Operation Spark program because he excels in math and science, and because he strives to be social.
Keeler was admittedly concerned about whether he’d succeed in the program. She wondered: Would he have meltdowns? Would he get physical? Would he attend every day that is required, and be on time? Would he thrive, despite the daily challenges that come with autism and anxiety?
When asked to describe her late mother, Genie Bowers, Chalmette resident Mandy Dobronich doesn’t have to think long before responding.
Keeler watched him gain confidence along the way.
“Although there are no miraculous fixes or solutions when dealing with autism-related issues, every supportive experience has helped form him into the young man he is becoming, and I am very proud,” she said. “I knew nothing about it as a parent going in, and I had my own anxieties, but rest assured, the support and open communication was there and guided us through it.”
Branford Clayton, 24, also participated in Coding for Youth with Autism. He hopes to work in the tech industry one day. Because he enjoys meeting new people, virtual learning was a challenge. But he still collaborated with fellow students.
“I have more confidence in myself, and communicating with others has enhanced my communication skills,” Clayton said.
“Although most kids with autism are not very enthusiastic, you can feel the enthusiasm when you are around them,” Williams said. “Not to mention, they get really excited when we say, ‘Once you’ve finished this class, you can make up to $70,000 a year.’ They light up, and they’re like, ‘I can buy so many things with this.’ ”
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Program applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 25, with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. With the support of a caretaker, they must complete the computer readiness assessment program and Operation Spark’s introduction to computer coding course. They will then be evaluated and referred to enroll in levels one and two of training.
Williams’ son Colby has already completed the program. Marlin and Tristan plan to participate at some point. In the meantime, the busy mom is working to bring Coding for Youth with Autism to the 10 Families Helping Families centers around Louisiana.
“It’s really amazing to see something that was in my mind come to life, and to see parents, who have been told that (their) child can’t do anything but collect a Social Security check, have a child in our coding program about to have a $70,000 job,” Williams said.
“I was that parent, that folks said, ‘Your children aren’t going to be able to do this.’ And to see not only my kids but to see these kids beating the odds … making money, it really warms my heart.”
Standing beneath a cloudless sky on a recent Saturday, Peggy Williams surveyed the flurry of activity at her St. Roch home.