I want to tell you about a brilliant initiative to help young autistic adults learn how to make apps for iPhones and similar devices. I see this as being a possible game-changer for thousands of autistic people in learning skills that are both marketable and fun.

The Empower Autism campaign arose from a partnership with LiveCode in Edinburgh, Scotland and the National Autistic Society, Specialisterne, and Autism Initiatives. They are currently raising money and registering students on Indiegogo.

Their goal is to train 3,000 young adults on the autism spectrum, across the world, how to code. They will provide an extensive training program with specialist support to help these young adults develop employment skills or gain self-employment in the app business. This project could open so many doors for young adults on the spectrum in terms of employment and entrepreneurship.

Young boy in bedroom using laptop and listening to MP3 playerI was amazed to discover that for only $99 autistic persons can get 6-12 months of app development training designed specifically to help people reach the level where they can create their own apps. I’ve never seen an app development program at this price offer this much support and community, and I’ve especially not seen a training program like it for people on the spectrum.

Along the way, students will learn how to re-create 20 existing Apple apps so they can experience how the development process works and see for themselves that they can create something like the ‘pros’ can.

No prior programming or software experience is required. The only requirement is that the student must be 13 years of age or older, autistic, and have an interest in learning how to make their own apps.

I had the opportunity to interview LiveCode about Empower Autism. Our conversation is below. If you want to go straight to the Indiegogo page, see their intro video, read all about the campaign, and see how to sign up, go here.

Tim: So this course is entirely online, correct? The students don’t have to physically go anywhere other than to their own computers?

LiveCode: Yes, it’s all online. The students can learn from the comfort of their own homes.

Tim: What technology and software tools does a student need to complete their projects? Is that all provided through LiveCode?

LiveCode: LiveCode provides all of the software. Students will need to provide their own laptop or computer.

Tim: How is the course presented? (online modules, videos, readings, etc.?) Is it self-paced? Are assignments basically checked by whether they work like the replica, or do the student and mentor work with anyone at LiveCode to ‘grade’ these benchmarks in the course?

LiveCode: Slides and videos are the main ways the course is presented. It can be self-paced. The goal for the students is to recreate the app each lesson whilst, of course, learning all the skills that go with it. Should the student have any difficulties replicating the app, they can submit their app via the online support forum and we would be on hand to assist them, providing explanations of the issue and how they can overcome them.

Tim: A lot of us middle-aged people have horror stories to tell about writing hundreds and thousands of lines of code in BASIC, Fortran, etc. in school to create rather uninteresting programs even though they took hours and hours to write. This is often what we think of when we think about programming. Tell me about why creating iOS apps is so much different, easier, and much more interesting and useful than that.

LiveCode: Creating iOS apps is exciting because a student gets to create the app they have on their phone or see in the stores. They can create something to work like an app they already use every day. It’s not only a cool way of learning a practical skill, but it allows students to test their new found knowledge by creating apps they like. One of the benefits of LiveCode is you only create one code base and you can deploy to multiple platforms, so it’s much more than just iOS.

We feel your pain about writing hundreds and thousands of lines of code. This is not the case with LiveCode. Using simple commands and English words you can code a fully featured app with very few lines of code.

Tim: Beyond the goal of creating replicas of the Calculator, Clock, Messages apps we already use many times a week on our phones and tablets, what other specific learning goals will the students achieve as part of this program?

LiveCode: The ability to code and create their own apps from scratch and work as a freelancer or for an app business developing apps for other businesses and companies. By engaging students with the apps they know and love they will actually learn all of the skills needed to build fully featured modern apps.

Tim: It’s $99 to reserve one slot for a student if the campaign is successful. Are there any additional costs during the 6 to 12-month program (optional or required) that should be considered by a parent or mentor?

LiveCode: No.

Tim: Can a friend or family member acquire a space and gift it to a student?

LiveCode: Yes. At another $99 perk called “Sponsor a Seat.”

Tim: Talk about the Family Pack for a minute. If I have one child on the spectrum and other children who aren’t, I can sign them all up for this course for that one Family Pack price?

LiveCode: The Family Pack includes one family member on the autism spectrum and their mentor, who can also be part of their family. However, we suggest that the mentor be someone who can help the adult on the autism spectrum and not act as another student. The mentor will be given full access to the course and forums so they can learn with their family member. Todd Fabacher has been teaching his son how to create apps and they have even started building their own app together, he has said “it was a great family activity”.

Tim: Also talk about the LiveCode community, too, and the chance to form online relationships with other students on the spectrum or with similar interests.

LiveCode: The LiveCode community is made up of people from all over the world. They’re very supportive and willing to help with any questions or comments a new community member may have. Students on the course will have access to the LiveCode community forums where they can find support as they continue building apps. LiveCode and the National Autistic Society will also offer ongoing support after the course has finished.

Tim: What kinds of support can the student and mentor expect from the online help desk?

LiveCode: Support will come in two forms.

Technical support – students and mentors can expect a dedicated forum where technical support will be on hand from the experienced LiveCode team. All the LiveCode tech support staff are receiving training in understanding autism and interacting with individuals on the autism spectrum, from one of our charity partners.

Non Technical Support – The National Autistic Society will set up an online help desk to offer advice and support for any non technical issues that may arise during the training course.

Tim: When the course is over, what kinds of apps could you see a student creating next?

LiveCode: Students who complete the training course have endless opportunities to create apps on many platforms. Students may bring their own ideas for apps or perhaps they may choose to become a freelance app developer and the type of apps they build will be defined by their clients.

Students will be given a full 1 year commercial license from LiveCode meaning they can develop fully featured apps for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows and more.

Training 3000 individuals with autism will have an impact on the app business and we are excited to see this and privileged to be a part of it.

I do web programming myself and have dabbled in learning how to do iOS apps. I’ve looked at numerous courses, and this is one of the most exciting courses I’ve seen. It’s an ambitious goal that will make a huge difference in a lot of lives. I commend them for this work.

To sign up for a slot in the class, go to their Indiegogo page. As a reminder, you must do it before the campaign expires in mid-May. If you have questions, you can use the Contact link on the campaign page.

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Prayers of the People

by Tim on April 12, 2015

Dear Lord,
You who watch over the lilies of the field,
Help us just to not suck today.

Help us to put our clothes on right,
Or to at least meet the minimums of decency.
Help us to put toothpaste on our brushes instead of diaper cream,
And to not look too much like a raving lunatic in public.
Or at least grant us shelter us from arrest.

Help us when we yell at someone in a store
that we might not hurt our voices.
Guide our feet as we kick ass,
And lead us not into more expletives than are necessary,
But make them the right ones,
In thy mercy.

For those who do not believe in our kids,
For those who judge our parenting and our kids’ behavior,
For those too quick to speak and too slow to listen,
For those whose hearts have hardened,
We pray.

For those who cannot fathom how to pay their bills,
For those who hold their heads in despair,
For those who don’t know if it will ever get better,
For those getting up off the ground to fight once more,
For those who refuse to give up,
For those who choose love over fear,
We pray.

And may our coffee pots brew well and our grounds be plentiful.

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Today is World Autism Awareness Day. To be honest, I’m not interested in awareness anymore.

Today is the one day on the calendar where it’s popular for the general public to temporarily lift their heads and look around in vague awareness of something that is fundamental to the identity of 1.5% of the people alive right now.

Awareness sounds like something you feel when you hurt your foot, run into somebody, or realize you’re late to an appointment. There’s awareness going on all over the place today because it’s become trendy.

I don’t think we really need this.

What our kids need is acceptance. Acceptance is harder than awareness because it requires effort and time. Awareness is too easy and doesn’t require anything of people. Thankfully, Autism Acceptance Day and Autism Acceptance Month (also observed today and this month) came to be precisely because awareness alone just wasn’t cutting it.

Our kids need to be able to grow through childhood into adulthood getting the education and services they need to become the person they want to be. Our kids should be able to go to stores and schools and not be looked down upon or bullied. Our kids should not be attacked for “taking too much school funding” (a BS argument to begin with) or for getting government-funded services.

Awareness won’t get us any of that. It’s barely even a starting point. It’s not even a noticeable movement of the attitude needle. It’s awareness as in, “Hey, it’s sunny today.”

Autistic persons of all ages are no longer interested in awareness. They want to be accepted for who they are. They want people to stop trying to completely change them to conform to some societal standard. They just want to be a full part of the world like everyone else.

Is this too much to ask? Isn’t this what we want for our own children?

I admit that a kind of awareness can help in some instances. When you have family and friends who genuinely want to learn about autism, your child, and your family, then that’s a wonderful thing. As they become more aware of your child, their challenges, and so forth, their hearts can open to all new possibilities, levels of compassion, and avenues of advocacy.

Maybe we should call this “awareness plus”. It’s born of a genuine desire to learn and grow in knowledge. It arises from kindness and wanting to help. It comes from a desire, even if they don’t quite realize it, to grow toward acceptance.

I feel like these are the people we should concentrate on, the ones who show an inclination to learn, help, and become advocates for our children. Many of my friends and family members are such people, and I’m proud of them for stepping up to help our son.

In order to get to a world of acceptance where our children are respected for who they are, we have to start with people who are willing to learn and become participants in this movement. Those who either just participate once a year or who, much worse, actively want us to go away, aren’t people we can do much with right now.

If we’re going to do this at all, we need to concentrate on those who are more actively interested in offering genuine, compassionate help. Let’s be clear. I don’t expect everyone to drop everything they do and help us. That’s neither fair nor realistic. But allies willing to learn and lend a hand are gold. They hold so much of the key to us as a society moving forward toward acceptance.

But ultimately it’s up to you whom you wish to educate or not, make aware or not, seek acceptance from or not. You are under no obligation to do any of it just because it’s a month and day on the calendar. Your only obligation is to your child, your family, and yourself.

I think we do have to build bridges to potential allies and advocates in order to create a better world for our children and autistic persons everywhere. It’s an ongoing project we all participate in to some degree or another. But it’s not just for April, and it’s certainly not just for April 2nd.

It’s our daily lives.

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Winter sucks for depression. Those of us with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) hate it. Even if you don’t have SAD, the lack of light still affects you to some degree. If you have any sort of depression, winter can simply drain life from you.

I’ve struggled with depression for as much of my life as I can remember. There have been times in the past where it’s been crippling. I’ve learned how to keep it above that line most of the time, or at least how to fake it when it’s going badly.

Mixing depression and chronic pain, however, has been a terrible challenge of late. Over two years of near constant pain of some degree has ground me down. My neurologists tell me that no one goes through this without depression, or in my case, a lot more of it. The body and mind just were not meant to carry both of these for this long without something having to give.

Add in having a five-year-old with cancer and an autistic nine-year-old – and all the times I worry about them, their present challenges, their unknown futures – and I spend much of my mental energy feeling anxious, if not terrified, of it all.

I tell myself that this is normal. I tell myself that I’ve gotten through this many, many times before, and I’ll do it again. Both of these are true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very hard.

Most of all, I’m tired of saying ‘no’ to my kids about nearly everything. I don’t have the mental or physical energy to say ‘yes’ anywhere near as much as I want to. I often feel like a crappy, terrible parent. And the result is just more depression – an endless spiral that feeds on itself like the snake eating its own tail.

OuroborosToward the end of each day especially, I regularly feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin and away from my frantic brain. I either want to check out for a couple of hours or more or just call it a day and try again tomorrow. But I can’t and I don’t.

My younger son has no memory of me being strong. Tim the marathoner and distance runner seems like a lifetime ago now, even though it’s not even 2 1/2 years. He only knows the ‘no’ me, the one who has far too many limits. The one he sometimes feels like he needs to take care of. That often hurts the most.

I hide the struggles from him as best I can. He has far too many of his own. He is on the cusp of remission after an awful past 12 months. He doesn’t need this, and young kids shouldn’t have to worry about and take care of their parents anyway.

I even have some idea of what I have to do to get back on the right track again, but depression being what it is, I often just can’t bring myself to do it. I keep hoping things will get better when spring comes, but that, too, seems so far away.

My first marathon was a borderline miracle. I was in a terrible place when I decided to get off the couch and start piecing my life back together. That’s the one gift of a marathon that never goes away: I’ve done it once; I can do it again.

Even if I can’t jog around the block right now, and even though the way back now is even harder, that part of me keeps its faith even if the rest cannot. I see my finisher’s medals and long to get back to that place. To get to where I can roll back the uniform, impenetrable gray of depression. To get to where my sons can see me strong and alive again.

To get back to the father who can say ‘yes’ whenever he wants.

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His Brother’s Keeper

by Tim on January 15, 2015

Our younger one recently said to me, “When I grow up, J and I will live together and I’ll run errands for him.”

Our younger son is 5. And he has cancer.

And deep down he knows so much responsibility may fall to him someday.

I’m just out of feelings sometimes. He has such a good heart. He loves his brother so much, even when our J-Man often can’t reciprocate in the way he wants him to.

J&E at schoolHe knows his brother ‘is autism’ (his way of saying ‘is autistic’) and is continually deepening his grasp of what that means. We talk to him about it in terms we think he can best understand as a precocious five-year-old. We are honest without being dramatic. We teach him about respect and acceptance.

But none of us really has a clue what the future holds for any of us. We try to imagine it as best we can. We think through all the ramifications of how it will impact our family now and into the next generation. (Or we don’t think about it because we feel too lost.) We each come to our own understanding.

Dale Jr. is having to grow up much too fast. At 5, he’s had to face cancer and a year’s worth of treatments and medical challenges so far, in addition to trying to understand what it means to have an autistic brother. And he’s had to do this all while navigating the newness of kindergarten, the blossoming social life of elementary school, and every new thing that comes with making friends and adjusting to these crazy things called school and life.

We’ve tried to bear as much of it as we can for him, but often we feel helpless. He worries so much. So much is outside his control. He does the best he can, but fear gets hold of him and will not let go. My heart aches for him, and it screams that we have been rendered so powerless to help him.

When he says things like this, I want to stay alive forever. I want him to be free to pursue his own life, just as much as I want our J-Man to have the opportunity to pursue his. The love Dale Jr. expresses in his simple statement is so vast it’s a wonder one heart can hold it all in.

But he’s too young to have to shoulder all this. It’s hard enough to explain autism and the challenges that come with it to any sibling, let alone one so young. It’s a series of talks so many of us parents face at some point, and honestly none of us know quite how to do it.

For now, we keep things simple. We make sure Dale Jr. knows there’s nothing wrong with his brother; they just each see and understand the world differently than the other, with neither way being right or wrong. We make it absolutely clear that any kind of poking fun or laughing at someone because they seem different is never right. We want him to show respect for everyone, and we encourage him at any time to come to us with questions if he doesn’t understand why someone or something is different.

He’s wise and observant far beyond his five years, and we often have trouble keeping up with how fast his mind is growing. But more importantly I think, his heart is growing even more. He makes people feel liked and welcome. No matter what comes next or what he experiences in life, that will always serve him well. We couldn’t be prouder of him.

I just want him to be able to be a kid, too – to not have to worry about so much, to forestall the days in which these concerns will become an unavoidable part of his life. He should be free to play in the dirt, tell fart jokes, and laugh with his friends without carrying the burdens he has to right now.

But life has given us each other and this journey we are on together. We will make our way along this path because we love each other more than anything. We will find a way because that is what we do.

It’s just a father’s wish that his children’s lives should be easier, both for now and a long time to come. When they cannot be, it hurts terribly. But I love them far more than any hurt, and I trust this will always be enough.

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