By Sunny Bui

There is a large gap in the increasing number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and a low percentage of under-represented groups (ie, women and people with disabilities) who are attaining degrees in these fields and participating in the workforce.1,2 Although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act guarantees equality and the absence of discrimination, people with disabilities encounter barriers to post-secondary education in STEM fields.3,4 A promising mechanism to enhance enrollment in STEM fields for youth with disabilities is through robotics programs.5 Among typically developing youth, robotics programs have the potential to improve STEM-related skills, teamwork, self-confidence, and social and communication skills.6,7 Youth with disabilities are often excluded from and/or have fewer opportunities to participate in STEM programs.5 Although there is growth in literature on the potential role of robotics programs, such as LEGO therapy, little is known about the impact of an adapted, group-based robotics program specifically for youth with disabilities.2,5,8 Among the group that could benefit most are individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).9

There is a growing focus in research literature to utilize the restricted interests of people with ASD to help foster learning (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016). The passion and repetitive behaviours that are exhibited towards these interests appear to increase over the lifespan.10 However, these interests may not always constitute positive learning and can guide development of negative social behaviours not consistent with social norms. For example, stalking behaviour and tendencies that typically appear in youth with ASD, aged 10-15.11 Negative social behaviours like stalking contributes to the social stigma and further adds to the social challenges associated with ASD. If not corrected or properly guided, negative restricted interests can be detrimental in other aspects of life such as education and employment.12 Restricted interests can be beneficial for learning, however, individuals with ASD may not always overcome challenges in social communication. Difficulties in social communication can contribute to academic underachievement and has the largest impact on education during years of critical social development (i.e., youth).13 In addition, social difficulties often prevent the successful integration of people with ASD into the workforce despite their educational attainment.14 Developing a mechanism that provides an opportunity to pursue positive interests (ie, STEM) and contribute to personal development (ie, social communication and interactions) is needed to help minimize the challenges (ie, in education and employment) people with ASD face in their lifetime.

Individuals with ASD have the potential to help address the increasing number of jobs in STEM as these jobs tend to be naturally repetitive and systematic. However, there are few studies in the research literature that have explored an evidence-based pathway to increasing interests towards STEM. A pilot study conducted by the Transitions and Inclusive Environments Lab (TRAIL) suggests that a promising pathway to increase STEM interest is through robotics programs for youth with disabilities.5 In specific, the HB FIRST® robotics program at Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto. While engaged in teamwork, children learn about computer programming and building robots. This approach is different than LEGO therapy models that are typically less structured and have a more recreational focus. Additionally, structured group-based robotics programs similar to the HB FIRST® robotics program have the potential to increase career interests of children and youth towards STEM education and employment.15 The combination of interacting with a peer, building robots and learning coding can provide a basis for developing soft skills that are critical in future STEM careers.

Current research being conducted by the TRAIL builds from the current research literature. In specific, the effects of the adapted HB FIRST® robotics program on soft skills (ie, social, teamwork and problem solving) that are critical for success in future education and employment in the STEM field. Findings will be ready for dissemination January 2020.


Author Bio

Sunny Bui (he/him/his) is a MSc candidate in the Rehabilitation Science program at the University of Toronto and graduate student in the TRAIL lab at the Bloorview Research Institute. He has a background in kinesiology and the social sciences. His thesis topic is on the development of soft skills (ie, social) among youth with disabilities (ie, autism spectrum disorder) in an adapted robotics program.



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