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 Hillside Elementary student Ian Wenklert, 9, works on building a robot during a special education class put on by The Robot Garage of Birmingham Dec. 7 at Farmington High School.

Hillside Elementary student Ian Wenklert, 9, works on building a robot during a special education class put on by The Robot Garage of Birmingham Dec. 7 at Farmington High School.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Farmington students strive for special needs inclusion, representation in robotics

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published December 27, 2019


FARMINGTON — Not every child’s gifts shine in their school’s sports or academic teams.Some students, including those with special needs, may find various challenges in being a part of those teams or clubs.

That was the case for Zach Weisenberg, a current Warner Middle School student with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, who tried everything from basketball to tennis to soccer to martial arts in order to fit in.

“None of it really worked,” he said.

Asperger’s syndrome falls under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders and often comes with difficulty with social interaction and nonverbal communication.

“Back when I was a kid I tried to fit in a lot, and it was a pretty big struggle,” Weisenberg said. “Then I came across robotics, and it practically changed my life.”

Now Weisenberg and Warner Middle School Bionic Dragons robotics teammate Alex Ohm — who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — have stepped up to create opportunities in the community for other students on the spectrum or who have special needs to find their place in FIRST robotics as well.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Together, the boys have helped train and create FIRST Lego League junior teams at Forest Elementary School and Kenbrook Elementary School. Every Monday for five weeks, they visited autism spectrum classrooms during school hours at each of the schools and worked with the students to build something.

“We’re not constantly bringing (autism) up,” Weisenberg said. “We’re helping them feel included in the community.”

“We’re trying to make them feel like they’re not different,” Ohm added.

Danielle Ohm, Alex’s mom and the team captain of the Bionic Dragons, believes a main reason more special education students aren’t involved in robotics is scheduling issues.

“A lot of people think they just aren’t signing up, but they aren’t signing up because they’re taking speech, behavioral and occupational therapy, and all these other classes they can only take after school,” she said. “And that’s the only time when robotics is being offered.”

They also started a program at the Farmington Community Library called Sensory STEM, which allows students to learn science, technology, engineering, math and robotics-based skills through a variety of events. Weisenberg said their most popular events are Lego builds and racing, bubble science, and a dot-and-dash game.

The Bionic Dragons have teamed up with Total Sports to secure noise cancelling headphones for students who need them during their extracurricular programs.

Tammy Damrath, the vice president of FIRST in Michigan, said children with autism often fit in well with FIRST robotics because they “often have an aptitude for math and science that go along with robotics.”

She said that while FIRST has always had a foundational mission to include special education students, the awareness that they’re not only welcome but wanted in the robotics community is picking up speed.

FIRST robotics partners with Kids Included Together, an organization that teaches FIRST participants what autism spectrum disorder is and how the program can best provide accommodations to those students as they get involved.

Some of the most frequent accommodations Annie Fleming, the community outreach coordinator for the Robot Garage in Birmingham and Rochester, sees include adjusting volumes or offering noise cancelling headphones, adjusting lighting or offering sunglasses, providing a pre-build for those with fine motor skill issues, increasing staffing ratios to accommodate more intensive one-on-one instruction, or opening early for special education groups who might have sensory issues.

“We make sure we schedule them at a time where it’s going to be nice and quiet here,” she said.

While inclusion toward special education students in robotics is growing nationally, Fleming said more work can still be done in surrounding communities to show how inclusive the field is.

“They don’t realize how accommodating a lot of organizations are or are willing to be. I think we just need to get the message out there.”

Weisenberg hopes his teammates and peers can continue to grow inclusion and immerse special education students into STEM fields. He thinks reaching a wider range of students would ultimately be a benefit to robotics programs and the kids themselves, much like the benefits he’s seen individually.

The only speed bump they’re facing: the financial resources needed to purchase the necessary equipment.

“I don’t think getting those resources will actually be a problem, though,” he said. “Getting the people (to help) will also not be a problem, because I’ve talked to a lot of people on the team, and (a lot) of them have friends or family with high functioning autism or a mental disability. It’s more common than you think.”