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South University Volunteers Help to Develop IT Skills in Autism Community

by South University
June 22, 2018 Angelo E. Thalassinidis, PhD, Chair of the Department of Information Systems and Technology at South University, Tampa, first started volunteering with the MacDonald Training Center (MTC) at their Help Desk around 7 years ago, and it’s a partnership that, over the years, has kept growing. http://www.southuniversity.edu/whoweare/newsroom/blog/south-university-volunteers-help-to-develop-it-skills-in-autism-community
A photo of an information technology professional using a computer.

Angelo E. Thalassinidis, PhD, Chair of the Department of Information Systems and Technology at South University, Tampa, first started volunteering with the MacDonald Training Center (MTC) at their Help Desk around 7 years ago, and it’s a partnership that, over the years, has kept growing.

Founded in 1953, MTC was one of the first US preschools for children with disabilities and has been a leader in serving individuals with disabilities ever since. They currently offer educational, vocational, and residential support programs to individuals with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities in Tampa and Plant City, Florida.

IT Career Opportunities for People with Autism

By 2020, the US will have nearly 3 million adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and, of the current adults with ASD, 70-90% are categorized as underemployed or unemployed.

"There is a huge question as to how we can help this community escape the barriers to employment that they face," says Dr. Thalassinidis. "So, we are asking what more can the Macdonald Training Center do, as well as what can we as a department do to be more involved in addressing this issue."

According to the National Institute for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), part of the problem is that traditional efforts to employ these adults focus largely on social deficiencies rather than cognitive strengths. Interestingly, Dr. Thalassinidis and other academics note that many people with ASD have strengths uniquely suited for careers within the information technology field, including high-demand areas like cyber security. Not only do most people with ASD have average or above average IQs, NICE reports that many of these individuals are skilled in:

  • Critical thinking
  • Rapid pattern recognition
  • Efficient quantitative analysis of data
  • Precision focus

"There are tracks within information technology where people with differences perform much better than the average person," explains Dr. Thalassinidis. "In those areas, we need people with special skills, and some of those special skills are commonly found within the disability realm."

Building a Partnership & a Solution: South University & MTC

With curriculum development support from South University and Dr. Thalassinidis, MTC has recently launched an innovative training program, Excellence in Computer Education and Learning (EXCEL), designed to help prepare youth on the autism spectrum for careers in technical industries and positions.

Currently, the South University, Tampa department has one IT instructor teaching at MTC, an experience they hope to learn from and build on. “We are starting with a course on Microsoft Office Software right now, but the dream is to expand to cybersecurity,” says Dr. Thalassinidis, explaining that their first priority is understanding the educational needs and learning styles of this population.

In the near future, Dr. Thalassinidis hopes to start having South University students volunteer at MTC under the guidance of the IT instructor. He believes doing so will not only help the instructor reach more students but will also contribute to the University’s mission of helping to shape the character of our students.

"We strive to develop our students as citizens. We try constantly to instill volunteerism into their everyday life by engaging them in community events on and off campus," says Dr. Thalassinidis.

From working with and better integrating disability communities into society to offering local organizations a helping hand, this practice of supporting each other and focusing on our strengths is what Dr. Thalassinidis believes will help us to keep up with the technology that is continually reshaping our lives.

"By looking at and working on our strengths rather than our weaknesses, by looking at and embracing diversity and change, this is how we will be able to survive all of this disruptive innovation and evolution in technology that we are experiencing."

Learn more about the MacDonald Training Center here or about South University Information Systems and Technology programs here.

Tags: faculty information technology career options

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