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Understanding How Children on the Autism Spectrum Engage in Solution Optimization during a Design Activity

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

DEED Technical Session 11 Empathy and Human-Centered Design 2

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Paper Authors

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Hoda Ehsan The Hill School


Monica Cardella Florida International University

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Monica E. Cardella is the Director of the School of Universal Computing, Construction, and Engineering Education (SUCCEED) at Florida International University. She is also a Professor of Engineering and Computing Education with a joint appointment in SUCCEED and the STEM Transformation Institute.

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While engineering education community has been putting so much effort to welcome all individuals to engineering, neurodiversity has just begun to be part of this conversation. Neurodiversity is the variations in humans’ brain in terms of mental functions such as learning, sociality and attention. Promoting the inclusion of neurodiversity in engineering education comes with two connected benefits: (1) the neurodivergent learners can potentially access developmentally- appropriate engineering education, and (2) the engineering community becomes more innovative by employing the diverse and unique ways of thinking that comes with neurodiversity. Among the neurodivergent community, the number of individuals on the autism spectrum continues to increase. Autism results in a wide range of characteristics, among which is strong systemizing abilities. Systemizing abilities include paying attention to details, visual thinking, predicting how a system functions, and identifying patterns. Having these unique skills have been proven to be advantageous to many fields, including engineering and design. In order to help individuals with autism to achieve their full potential in engineering and design, like any other leaners, we need to begin exposing them from young ages. Thus, in this study, we aimed to unpack and examine ways children with autism engage in engineering design practices. In this study, we will be reporting on three nine-year-old children on the autism spectrum. Children were given a problem in the form of a request from a fictional character, and were asked to design a solution for the problem. We conducted an in-depth analysis of 3 hours of video recordings of their interactions and conversations during this design experience. We explored their design practices in all design phases including problem scoping, idea generation and solution development, and solution optimization. However, in this paper, we dig deep into ways the children optimized their solutions. We focus on actions including testing, troubleshooting, improving and evaluating. By providing excerpts of their design experience, we highlight the design behaviors that could be associated to solution optimization actions. We unpack ways they engaged in those actions. We wrap up the paper by providing brief recommendations for educators to support children’s engagement in design, and the lessons they can teach the neurotypical students about design based on the autistics design behaviors.

Ehsan, H., & Cardella, M. (2022, August), Understanding How Children on the Autism Spectrum Engage in Solution Optimization during a Design Activity Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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