CHENNAI: Autism Awareness Month is often full of surprises. From sports events to artistic displays, we find surprises in many expressions of autistic individuals. Surprises because the neurotypical world tends to zero in on what the neurodiverse kind cannot do and so, finds the unexpected in their accomplishments. Hash Hack Code, like many allies, prefer to show the world what people with autism can do and the many things that come to them naturally. The result is a virtual gallery in the metaverse to showcase its students’ works in coding, art, music and other talents.
The metaverse gallery was created to display the different strengths of our autistic students, begins Manu Sekar, Hash Hack Code’s CEO and founder. “Mostly, our autistic students who have learnt to code have made these art pieces with coding. Some of them who are good with sketching and drawing have displayed those works. There’s some music on display too. The reason we chose the metaverse is because one of the best ways to showcase (diverse) talent is through technology. And this isn’t the first time we are doing such a showcase. Last year, three of our students made an accessible COVID-19 data website. So, they are showing their skills through technology, proving that they are capable,” he explains.
This idea governs the larger purpose of Hash Hack Code, a social enterprise that works with neurodiverse individuals — be it autistic individuals, people with Down syndrome, ADHD or anyone with different learning abilities — on skill training, especially in tech. “Many of them have good primary and secondary education. When it comes to tertiary education, it is not accessible to most of them. So, they have no opportunity or career they can go for. In this tech age, more than your degree or certificate, your skills are what matter. We want to skill neurodiverse individuals in coding and have them be valued for that,” he elaborates. Manu narrates the story of their first student as a living example of this theory. Prem Shankar, a 26-year-old, who started basic coding, learnt web designing and now does wedding websites and even accessible websites (like the one for the Covid project).
Tokens of accomplishment
This virtual exhibition is just a part of that realisation. Going beyond the mere display of the students’ artistic pieces, some projects specific to autism will be made into NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Rudra Rao, a 16-year-old will be the first autistic individual to have his art go into the cryptographic territory. His project — a bird with ‘infinity’ wings — will be live auctioned on Thursday; that of other students will follow soon. “This is one of the first attempts in India with autistic individuals with coding, converting it into NFTs. Whatever money we get from the NFTs, we are giving it as a scholarship for neurodiverse people and buy computers for them,” he shares.
As much as this effort says much about Hash Hack Code and its purpose, the works on display come with stories about its makers, promises Manu. One student has picked the infinity symbol for his project, for the autistic community is moving more and more away from the puzzle symbol — one that denotes that something is missing — to this alternative — to emphasise that there are infinite possibilities with autism.
Another student decided to do a survey in the community to map their proficiency in eight different skills and offered the results as a spectrum visualisation, putting his data visualisation skills to use. “Most of the time, we think of autism as a linear progression — someone is severely autistic or mildly autistic. But it is more of a spectrum; someone might have very great attention skills but poor social skills. He wanted to showcase this phenomenon,” shares Manu.
Since it opened up in the metaverse, the exhibition has had a steady stream of visitors. But Hash Hack Code does not stop with just this display. It wants to be able to take this learning to as many neurodiverse individuals as possible. Towards that end, they are preparing a curriculum that schools can adopt for their students. This foundation course is sure to have a larger impact, when it is introduced in September, says Manu.
All this is part of the global effort to go beyond mere awareness this month. “Everybody is aware of what autism is now. Acceptance is what is needed. So, we call it Autism Acceptance Month. We want to show autism in a more positive way,” declares Manu, hoping more people will follow through.
Metaverse gallery can be accessed on a laptop or VR headset with this link https://bit.ly/HHCAT2022
Success stories aplenty
Prem is now working on Shopify and accessible web projects. Saravanan, who also learned to work on accessible web projects, has moved to Flutter App Development. Pranav now works for a corporate company and does their web design. All of this work with just two years of training and skill building in coding, shares Manu.