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Hackathons Can Be Great for Autistic STEM Students

If a classmate of yours invited you to a hackathon next Saturday, what would you picture your weekend looking like? Lots of people picture scenes from ‘Mr. Robot’ or War Games when they imagine what “hackers” look like or what “hacking” might entail-you might see Rami Malek sniffing wifi traffic at a coffee shop or Matthew Broderick using the phone line to alter his biology grade. That’s definitely one definition of “hacking”, but it comes from an older, much more general one.

In 2002, in his article “On Hacking”, Richard Stallman defines hacking simply as “playfully doing something difficult”. It’s in this general spirit, and not necessarily the security-minded one, that thousands of organizations across the world conduct “hackathons” every year. In the broadest sense, a hackathon could be any event that consists of lots of people trying to creatively solve problems over a short period of time-usually a matter of days.

In practice, many participants love to use technology to solve problems, (whether pressing or not, and whether anyone has considered this a “problem” before or not) and will often present projects that consist of software in some form.

Student hackathons are a great opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about technology. They can be a great way to connect with people in the field, make friends with similar interests, learn new skills, and get free swag. Participants don’t have to have programming experience.

These are all great things, of course. However, in addition to the benefits of attending a hackathon, autistic students might also find unique challenges. Here are a few suggestions, warnings, and observations from my first hackathon experience, in the hope that other autistic students will find it helpful and use it to figure out what kind of hackathon might suit their needs, and how they should prepare for one.

Sensory Issues

One issue that some autistic students might run into is sensory problems with food. Hackathons are often catered, and the selection can be unpredictable. Although sensory-friendly snacks like muffins, granola bars, and fruit will likely be available throughout any hackathon, the selection of local restaurants might be different to what students are used to.

One way for students to get ahead of this problem is to email organizers and request a menu in advance. If some of the meals won’t be sensory friendly, they can plan ahead and pack non-perishable nutritious snacks for the meals where they won’t be able to eat everything provided. They can also research restaurants and supermarkets within walking distance of the venue to see if anything will work to substitute a meal.

Another issue that some students may find challenging is the sleeping situation. If the hackathon is only 12 hours, this problem can be averted, but for longer events, some participants may sleep in the venue. Lots of students might find this uncomfortable or awkward, especially if they don’t know many people at the event. One way to avoid this problem is for students to find an event in their hometown or a town where they have a familiar place to stay. Since no one is obligated to stay overnight, and in fact, students at the university hosting the event will probably also go home, leaving to go sleep at home is a really common thing for hackers to do.

Social Skills

As any autistic person knows, social skills are often one of our biggest struggles. That challenge doesn’t go away at a hackathon, but there are definitely some factors present at many hackathons that give students a big assist with small talk and making friends at the event. For example, many hackathons will start the event with icebreakers, where instead of unstructured small talk, everyone will introduce themselves by answering a question or playing a word game. Students will also talk about what projects they want to work on, what skills they have, and what skills they might be looking for on their team. If you don’t have a lot of technical skills, don’t worry! Often, people will just be looking for someone who is interested in their project, even if they don’t have a lot of experience.

If you have a project you’re interested in, you can also share your idea. Some people may approach and ask to be on your team, if your project piques their interest. It’s also usually fine for students to work on their own, if you have a clear vision of what you want to do and how you want to accomplish it. Sometimes the most creative or interesting projects come from people working solo.

There are also sometimes side activities at hackathons, like Smash tournaments, Just Dance competitions, or workshops on technical skills. Students are free to pick what they want to do and when, but aren’t obligated to participate in any activity that doesn’t sound interesting, or that sounds stressful. Sharing an activity with others who like it can also be a good way to find friends who aren’t on your team.

Skills and Special Interests

There are so many ways to incorporate a special interest into a project. Students who are interested in public transportation could make an application for tracking buses or a website that consolidates transit maps. It doesn’t matter if someone else has already done a version of a project—often participating in a hackathon will give you your own opportunity to put a twist on something. Students interested in Harry Potter could make something like https://swapi.co/ for that universe. The possibilities are really limitless, and projects aren’t obligated to be “useful” or even to make sense. The point is to have fun making it, and if you find a way to get your special interest involved, that can make it even better.

I mentioned skills above, but it’s important to stress that no one should be discouraged from attending a hackathon just because they feel as though they’re not technically skilled enough. Lots of people learn as they work at a hackathon and come away with new skills. If you’re not interested in programming, you can find a project with opportunities to design or write. No one is good at everything, and you can find people with complementary skills so that you can all work on different aspects of your project.

Winning and Losing

The last topic I’ll tackle is the challenge of winning and losing at hackathons. Lots of the prizes are very arbitrary, and sometimes just awarded to projects the judges personally liked or found interesting. No one should be discouraged if they don’t win anything, because winning, or not winning, is not a reflection of skill or creativity, especially at a hackathon.

If a project doesn’t work or something goes absolutely wrong at the last minute, it’s important not to panic. Just breathe and remind yourself that you’re here to enjoy yourself, whatever that means for you. If it means making friends, that’s great. Hackathons are a wonderful place for that. If it means making a project that makes you and your friends laugh, I can’t think of a better place. If it means learning something new, or deepening a love for a special interest, hackathons can also be a perfect place for that.

I struggle with perfectionism and know a lot of other people on the spectrum do too, but an environment like a hackathon can be a great place to practice learning to handle imperfection and failure. If that’s something you feel comfortable trying out, and you feel confident that you can handle the other challenges that hackathons might pose, they might really be a perfect place for you to explore technology.

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Abi Hunter

Abi Hunter is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics jointly with a Master of Science in Computer Science. She has worked in software development for two summers. She is passionate about the intersections of formal linguistic theory and computer science, and hopes to pursue further graduate work in this field. Abi is passionate about STEM and computer science education in particular, and loves sharing her understanding of her favorite complex topics in programming and linguistics.

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