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How neurodiverse superpowers are unlocking innovation in tech

Posted November 13, 2023

A few decades ago, the term neurodiversity did not exist and people with neurological differences were often overlooked in the workforce. Now, with an estimated 1 in 7 people having a neurodiverse condition, those with diversely wired minds, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia are being embraced, supported and celebrated in workplaces around the world.

The tech sector, in particular, has been buzzing with the concept of neurodiversity in recent years. Neurodiverse workers have unique ways of thinking and problem-solving leading to innovative solutions.

In the heart of Adelaide, a coding school has become an incubator for neurodiverse tech talent. Modeled on the renowned École 42 in France, 42 Adelaide’s learning approach is centered around peer-to-peer learning, project-based coursework, gamified learning, and industry digital cadetships.

The coding school caters for 450 full-time students, and more than 40% of the current cohort is neurodiverse. They participate in a mix of on-campus and online learning, but unlike a traditional university setting, there are no formal classes or teachers. Instead, the 42 Adelaide education team sets coding projects for the students to collaborate on in a community-and-teamwork styled environment.

Students have the freedom to choose their own learning paths, tackle real-world coding challenges, learn the fundamentals of technology, and develop critical problem-solving skills. This approach not only equips them with the technical skills needed for tech jobs but also hones their soft skills, making them well-rounded candidates in the competitive tech industry.

42 Adelaide CEO, Louise Nobes, says the entire curriculum has been designed for people who think outside the box.

“Our neurodiverse learners find solutions where others draw blanks. They have the ability to focus in on learnings that others tire of. Those with ADHD thrive on new challenges, which as we know in tech, changes daily, requiring nimble minds eager to embrace development. Our neurodiverse learners absolutely thrive on the interactivity and diverse methods of attaining understanding that our peer-to-peer learning method demands.”

42 Adelaide’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion in tech has led to career breakthroughs for students like Shyen Wee and Carmina Familar, who have both been diagnosed as neurodiverse.

From left: Shyen Wee and Carmina Familar, 42 Adelaide learners

Wee had been on a long and challenging journey of learning at various Australian academic institutions until he heard about the 42 coding movement in a Facebook post shared via a Silicon Valley online forum. He’d previously pursued a polytechnic course in cybersecurity and a university degree in computer science but didn’t manage to finish either.

“I have ADHD so it’s hard for me to focus. My brain is wired differently, so I’m either hyper focused on things that really interest me or if things don’t interest me, it’s hard for me to focus. Computer Science degrees are slow moving, and if you don’t turn up you get behind and it’s hard to keep up.”

Wee says short tasks and tight deadlines work well for him, which is just the style of learning that 42 Adelaide offers. “42 has quick response times and you get quick feedback about your work which works well for neurodiverse students like me,” he says.

As part of his coding course, Wee has been working as a cadet at a local Australian tech firm. Having a structured job with fast turnaround, technical problem solving tasks tend to work well for him.

“I like being the neurodiverse guy,” he says. “I have superpowers like creativity. When you focus it just feels good. Neurodiversity really helps me think outside the box.”

Familar – a self-taught coder – has a similar perspective on the power of neurodiversity.

“It has been difficult coming to terms with my diagnosis, but I guess that’s where my coding skills come from,” she says. “I have times where I’m cheerful and hyper, so that’s good when I’m in a team environment and can easily talk with my peers.”

“But I’m also detail oriented and hyper focused on certain tasks like picking up bugs in the system that might be overlooked by someone else, and you need that in technology roles.”

Familar has already secured a full-time analyst programmer role at a state government department where she has been doing her cadetship.

“Typically, people would do a degree then get a full-time role, but I’ve only been coding since last February and I’ve already got a full-time role,” she says. “I’m honestly grateful for alternative education pathways, like 42, that cater to neurodiverse people and also have these connections with the tech industry.”

From left: Shyen Wee and Carmina Familar, 42 Adelaide learners

The current global cohort of 42 coding students recently participated in an AWS Cloud Quest online competition that was run across 13 campuses—from Australia to Kuala Lumpur to Paris. This fun and interactive game-based learning approach helps individuals build practical cloud skills while helping the citizens of a virtual city.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the first cloud provider to have its training and certification programs offered to 42 Adelaide students alongside their 42 core curriculum as an industry equipping skill. AWS has also worked with 42 in the delivery of their senior high school digital technologies subject, giving students the opportunity to engage with AWS cloud, IoT devices and machine learning capabilities.

Wee and Familar came away from the competition with their AWS Certified Cloud Quest Practitioner badges which they now display on their LinkedIn profiles. AWS Certifications are industry-recognized credentials that validate an individuals’ tech skills and cloud expertise, and help employers identify skilled talent.

42 Adelaide has built strong relationships with the local tech companies engaged in its cadetship internship program. Nobes says networking events at Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen innovation district have been invaluable for the students and their potential employers.

“At a ‘Tech Talk’ the employers will be blown away by the insightful questions the students ask and the alternative perspectives they offer. All these interactions bring about not just a willingness to hire neurodiverse students, but a strong desire. Our industry partners know they will hire a neurodiverse learner with exactly the skills they are after.”

Wee is aiming for a career in data analytics in the financial markets space and believes skills in big data will be mission critical for his future. As a former English teacher, Familar’s goal is to learn artificial intelligence and data science skills so she can build tools to help alleviate the administrative burdens on teachers.

Both students say they wouldn’t be at the starting line of promising tech careers without studying in an environment where diversity is celebrated. They believe that in an ever-evolving tech landscape, embracing neurodiversity is not just a choice for businesses; it’s a necessity for staying at the forefront of innovation and progress.

Read more stories like this on Issue_02 of Lot Fourteen’s Boundless Magazine

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