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Arlo Change Makers: Craig Smith

Between 1 and 2 in every 100 Australians have a diagnosis of autism. However, the number of Autistic people living in Australia is likely to be substantially higher. 

There is not one universally accepted definition of autism that captures everyone’s experience. Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference. Autistic people are all individuals and their experiences of day to day life will all be different. As such, the varying strengths and support needs that each person has can change particularly around big life transitions, or certain situations and environments.

In the words of Craig Smith – “Autism, like the entire neurodiverse experience of being human, highlights the uniqueness of each individual. We must approach everyone as someone entirely new, embracing their distinctiveness and getting to know them on their terms.”

For the first 12 years of his career, Craig worked as a classroom teacher, education outreach consultant and school coordinator for a school for autistic children. Today, Craig is the Technology and Innovation Manager at Positive Partnerships. The perfect role for someone who is passionate about the role that technology can play in sharing knowledge and in engaging new ways of learning.

“I am passionate about designing playful, accessible, futurist ideas to help reach all learners. I aim to contribute to the building of kinder, smarter communities. I believe our work in Positive Partnerships shares these same ideals – we want to support strong and productive relationships between home and school to achieve the best outcomes for every child.” says Craig.

Positive Partnerships is a national project funded by the Australian Government, working in partnership to strengthen positive outcomes for autistic students. Since their launch in 2008, they’ve delivered workshops around the country to more than 50,000 teachers and school staff, and more than 30,000 parents and carers. You’ll also find a ton of resources on their website that further support this mission – from webinars to online learning modules, extensive information sheets and more. Work that Craig has contributed greatly to.

On top of this, Craig has authored a number of free online textbooks and education courses based around the special interests of autistic students. He has been active in technology and autism education projects for many years, from running iPad workshops through to creating online learning curriculums through to designing wearable technology and building apps. He’s a lecturer at Notre Dame University, he’s run masterclasses for the United Nations in Shanghai, for ministries in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, as well as teaching and speaking tours of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Using technology to upgrade humanity

An Apple Distinguished Educator, Craig has worked closely with Apple on their accessibility work

“The modern approach to accessibility is referred to as ‘designing to the edges’ meaning that when designing something such as a product, an experience or an environment, you want to design it to the edges of human capacity so that it will be optimized for as many people as possible.” Explains Craig. 

Examples of this are the ability to enlarge font sizes, or control much of your smartphone and tablet experience via voice, be it Siri on iOS devices, Google Assistant on Android devices and Alexa on smart speakers.

Another part of Craig’s role as an Apple Distinguished Educator is focused around the best ways to use technology like an iPad in a classroom. He has always had a keen interest in the interplay of technology and children with autism and their families and the outcomes that we can see in that space. 

Craig believes iPads are a powerful tool for social inclusion, and one of the most impactful things about the iPad is that it is universally accessible straight out of the box. Whether students have needs regarding vision, hearing, physical input or related, you will find ways of personalizing an iPad to these individual needs in the Accessibility section of the Settings app –  iPads can be personalized to suit individual accessibility needs to an incredible extent.

Universal accessibility was one of the key themes that Craig covered in his keynote delivered at iPad Accessibility Summit in South Africa in October 2020. Another key theme was the use of technology to upgrade humanity. 

“It is impossible to talk about technology in education these days without explicitly taking an ethical position on the role it plays in the wellbeing and development of our children. My position is that we need to look for how technology brings out our best humanity and incorporate that into our education; as well, we need to teach our students how to recognise when technology is downgrading our humanity and how to avoid those instances.” Says Craig. 

Some examples Craig shares of this are students creating tours of their school in Minecraft to act as virtual social stories for new students who will soon be attending that school; students learning to code apps for diabetes health alerts; students creating 3D models of extinct animals to explore and learn about them in new ways; students delivering amazing live creative music performances, certain devices, gaming and apps can help enhance social skills and more.

Read the full summary of Craig’s keynote on his blog

Learning with pleasure 

Like the old adage says, that which we learn with pleasure we never forget.

Craig is a passionate advocate for incorporating strengths and interests into the curriculum, and has been to the United Nations to talk about the best way to use Minecraft in the classroom with children.

“One of the fantastic things about working with children with autism is their special interests. When social skills and communication skills can be difficult for them, their special interest is something that can keep them centred and that they develop a deep understanding of.” Says Craig. “To know what a student is interested in is to gain a window into their personal model of learning receptivity.”

While strengths and interests based approaches are not uncommon these days, it is a point of contention in how far to incorporate a strengths and interests approach into classroom practice: should Minecraft really be used to explore literacy concepts? Should Pokémon or Doctor Who or a love of fishing or cooking or unicorns really be embedded in the curriculum? The point of contention is often that school should be about broadening interests, about students maturing and generalising the scope of what they can do by putting personal interests behind them.

Craig’s view is that we should consider how to incorporate student strengths and interests into the classroom while also preparing them for broader experiences. Universal design for learning is a way of thinking about teaching and learning to meet the diverse and variable needs of all students and give them an equal opportunity to succeed. This approach offers flexibility in the ways students access material, engage with it and show what they know. We have these tools and resources at our disposal that can really level the playing field for autistic students and help them reach their full potential. 

“A strength-based approach is saying what do these children love, how can we maximize that, how can we tie that into their general growth, and that is how we will help them meet their full potential”, says Craig. “If there is one thing that everyone can take away from this, it is to recognize the immense potential of everybody in our society and how a society is most healthy when we have many different minds involved.”

Something that Positive Partnerships models themselves in their own training. They deliver high quality professional learning and resources through workshops, webinars and online modules for parents, carers and school staff to support and strengthen positive outcomes for autistic students.

For individuals that registered for an event but weren’t able to attend, the sessions, materials, and certificates are also made available via a learning management system. Webinars are run in different languages to cater to different communities and audiences, with session formats adjusted accordingly, and webinars are followed up with additional content via self-paced eLearning modules. 

Ultimately, catering to different learning styles and offering a wide range of courses and resources creates an inclusive culture and strengthens their capacity to support and advocate for autistic young people.

Connect with Craig on LinkedIn, visit Positive Partnerships or check out Craig’s Autism Pedagogy website to read his blog and learn more about the projects he’s involved in.

Arlo Change Makers is a series that highlights the passionate people behind training organizations that are changing people’s lives. 

We are proud to be the platform behind Craig and Positive Partnerships, helping them streamline administration, scale their business and deliver more impactful training.

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