Teen with Autism Creates Artificial Intelligence Prototype

Teen with Autism Creates Artificial Intelligence Prototype

Kari Lawler and father Brett Lawler - Photo credit: BPM

When educators are faced with a child that responds differently in a classroom environment that what is typically expected, teaching that child can be a daunting task. It’s not uncommon knowledge that children with autism, especially if they have a more severe form of autism, don’t always respond as expected in the classroom and can require additional support or alternate teaching methods. While meeting the needs of a child with autism can be a challenge, it’s important for educators to face these challenges, both for the sake of the individual children affected by autism and for society at large.

The case of Kari Lawler

Incredible stories about what children who experience autism are really capable of achieving aren’t difficult to find. Recently, reports about a 13-year old student from Castle Bromwich, UK have demonstrated again the true potential of children on the autism spectrum.

When Kari Lawler was 11 years old she was diagnosed with autism. At that point, she attended Castle Bromwich Junior School, but her parents pulled her out of the school system and educated her at home for a year. They were trying to figure out exactly what kinds of help Kari would need as a student to be successful, and being in her home environment gave Kari and her parents the familiarity and control they needed to help her adapt.

To be fair, Kari was having some difficulties while in the public-school system. She had trouble participating in group activities with other students and was often unable to take part in these types of activities because of her condition. But despite her social difficulties, Kari was and still is an incredibly bright student.

Recently, Kari actually developed a prototype of a virtual AI similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. Her father described the process by which Kari was able to develop her AI: She got a few books on programming, she read them, and within a week she’d built her prototype. Kari’s academic abilities aren’t limited to computer programming; she also excels with English, Science, and Math. Kari’s parents have had different tutors come and visit her in their home, and they’ve reported that she’s already prepared to sit for her GCSEs at the age of 13.

Developing your own AI with just a few books and a week is an impressive feat for anyone to accomplish, and especially a 13-year old. Despite Kari’s obvious intelligence, her parents have reported that they’ve still had difficulty placing her in a school. Now that they’ve had the chance to work with Kari and begin to better understand her diagnosis, they’ve been trying to put her back into a regular school setting. Even though she’s intellectually prepared, school administrators aren’t willing to take her into their academies because of her diagnosis.

Autism in education

Tons of children with a diagnosis of autism don’t receive the treatment or support that they need in order to thrive. Admittedly, Kari’s condition isn’t nearly as severe as it could be, and many children suffer from symptoms that are much more difficult to overcome. For example, Kari has trouble with groups, but is largely verbal. Some children aren’t verbal and therefore communication in the classroom setting even about basic tasks such as using the bathroom become a challenge. Even though autism presents a challenge in the education system, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

The problem

In the United States, the laws that mandate how special needs are addressed in the public-school system vary from state to state. There are some basic laws that govern the entire system, but these can often be interpreted differently and in ways that don’t necessarily do much for children suffering from a learning disability.

For example, a 2017 Supreme Court decision ruled that Colorado’s public education system recently lost a court case because the Supreme Court ruled that their measures weren’t doing enough to allow every child to grow. The Supreme Court determined that the school system must provide every child an opportunity for growth, they decided this was a right. This ruling overturned a previous case from 1982 which had established the necessity for every school to have a baseline special education program, but not one that necessarily gave the child what he or she needed as an individual.

These kinds of court cases are an example of the inconsistencies that exist in the public education system. While some states such as California, New Jersey, Utah, and Massachusetts have gone above and beyond to create excellent programs for children with autism, many states’ systems are stagnating, or are being purposely held back.

One of the biggest reasons that school systems aren’t improving their programming for children with autism comes down to funding. It’s more expensive to provide a child with autism with the resources he or she needs than a neurotypical child. Not only is it more expensive, but there’s a lack of funding as well.

In 1975, the federal government promised to cover 40% of cost for special education. If the federal government made good on its promise, then they’d be supplying about $40 billion to the public education system. But how much is actually budgeted? The most recent figure is $12 billion. While $12 billion sounds like a lot of money, and of course it is, when you think about the $28 billion that’s supposed to be there but isn’t, you start to see just how enormous the gap in funding is. 

The cost

It’s no newsflash that it costs more to educate children with autism than it does to educate neurotypical children. If our education system provided each child with the resources he or she needed to be really successful, then we’d have to spend a lot more on education, maybe even more than $40 billion. But, if you break down the cost of not educating children with autism, it costs more in the long run.

According to John McLaughlin, a professor who’s researched special education for over 40 years, if you intervene in a child with autism’s education at age 2 instead of at age 6, then over their lifetime, there is $1.2 million worth of savings in social services. Multiply that $1.2 million by every child with autism in the system and then begin to measure the costs. The savings is primarily because the earlier a child begins receiving support, the better he or she will grow and adapt. Not only will that child then require less intense intervention over the long run, but that child will then also be more likely to reach a degree of independence and be able to work and therefore contribute to the economy.

The bottom line

When you look at the surface of things, it’s easy to dismiss special education as being too expensive. As a system, we could just provide children with the most basic level of resources to simply get them through, but that wouldn’t be smart. More and more children are being diagnoses with autism so the problem is getting bigger, not going away. The longer we wait to address the problem, the more money it’s going to cost in the long run.

Talking about money also says nothing of the individual lives that are being affected as well. Kari Lawler is certainly not an isolated case. She’s one example of many children with autism who do require special circumstances and resources, but when given the support they need can grow and blossom in ways that we might never have anticipated.