There were many “aha” moments in those seven years that Michele McKeone taught students with autism at South Philadelphia High School. There was, for example, the surprise that, though her job was to prepare her students for life after graduation, there had been nothing tech-related in the curriculum; nothing about sending email, building a portfolio, browsing the web, editing video or writing computer code—all necessary skills in today’s workforce.
Then there was the shock of what her students were capable of when she did finally get computers into their hands, even those who were nonverbal: They may have made unintelligible noises, but they could rap, socialize, produce videos, and write code—in many cases, better than her. As she learned, 60 percent of those on the spectrum are drawn to some form of screen-based media. So even her students given to temper tantrums and high-pitched yelping became talented bloggers.
And there was the degree to which her students were invisible to other adults. There were times when even other teachers wouldn’t want her students in their classrooms. “I’m sorry,” McKeone would say to colleagues who didn’t know any better, a dagger somewhere behind her bright smile, “did you think we were having a discussion about this? It’s the law.”
McKeone, 34, self-describes as “oppositionally defiant”: Tell her not to do something, and it’s going to get done. She’d discovered an unmet need in the classroom, a whole generation of autistic students consigned to a future of either unemployment or menial, low-wage jobs because the special ed industrial complex didn’t see her kids the way she—and their parents—saw them: As capable. With apologies to former President Bush, who first coined the phrase, she started to see “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for her students everywhere; McKeone transformed from teacher to advocate. “My tiny fist was always raised,” she says.
McKeone resigned from teaching in January of 2015 to chase a dream and launch a company, Autism Expressed, which teaches digital skills to autistic students. Since its 2014 launch, she has done a quarter million dollars in revenues, received the Philadelphia Geek Award for Startup of the Year, and garnered media attention. The Autism Expressed curriculum is used throughout the Philadelphia School District, and thousands of students in several states—at public and private schools, as well as in many homes—use the online program. Now, McKeone is about to hire a head of sales and maybe even rebrand to grow her mission even further.
Her students could rap, socialize, produce videos, and write code—in many cases, better than her. As she learned, 60 percent of those on the spectrum are drawn to some form of screen-based media. So even her students given to temper tantrums and high-pitched yelping became talented bloggers.
There’s no question about the need. Autism is one of the nation’s fastest-growing developmental disabilities, with 1 in every 88 children falling somewhere on the spectrum. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among those with developmental disabilities is 14.3 percent.
Still, McKeone felt paralyzed by fear when she resigned to focus full-time on her company. Then 32, McKeone had just closed on her Fishtown house and now here she was, abandoning the security of a teaching job, which came with a steady paycheck and health insurance. At 2 a.m., she would jolt awake, and the anxious thoughts would start in: How am I going to pay this mortgage? What about healthcare? Come morning, after hours of exasperated pillow-fluffing and side-turning, the anxiety would morph into malaise and paralysis. For two months, she was in its grip.
So what did she do? How did she snap out of it? McKeone, by turns boisterous and sotto voce, can fill a room; she speaks with conviction, but never in a rush. She’s more teacher than pitchwoman; she doesn’t sell so much as explain. At a neighborhood watering hole last week, while she sipped white wine, I asked for the recipe to waving a middle finger at doubt. Her head dipped, and she inched forward.
“Investors probably don’t like to hear it, because it sounds a little out there,” she said. “But I let go.”
Fear, McKeone says, can be a motivator—but with a cost: “It can lead to burnout.” Instead, she had one of those Risky Business moments: Sometimes you just have to say, ‘What the fuck?’ She let go of the fear, of our addiction to outcome, and she thought about her kids—she still refers to them as her kids—and their needs. Making it about them made it less about her. Not only did the chattering distractions of her own mind dissipate, but she started to attract what she needed. In May 2013, she won a $20,000 prize from the University of Pennsylvania and the Milken Family Foundation. It was as if letting go had unlocked something in the universe.
McKeone graduated from the University of the Arts in 2005, where she studied digital media before getting a Master’s in Education from Chestnut Hill College. At South Philly High, she developed a curriculum that began with very practical tech lessons—What’s proper etiquette online? How do you attach documents to an email?—and has grown to include coding and web design.
She was so digitally savvy, she had assumed all teachers her age were, as well. But few of her colleagues were as at ease in the digital world. It didn’t take long for McKeone to see the need to increase digital skills among special ed teachers. UArts’ Corzo Center for the Creative Economy, which infuses creative economy types with entrepreneurial know-how, staked her with a $10,000 grant, enabling McKeone to build her beta version and test the design in her classroom.
Turns out, the central innovation of Autism Expressed isn’t necessarily in its platform. Rather, it’s in McKeone’s sui generis observation that her kids—and countless just like them—can do way more than people think.
“I saw that my students had an inherent affinity for technology,” she says. “Code is a puzzle and my students would lose themselves in puzzles. We once had an itinerant vocational teacher come to the classroom. He’s supposed to size the students up and place them in appropriate programs. Lamar, one of my nonverbal students, greeted him with an affectionate man pound to the chest. But he didn’t plan on including Lamar in the job training program at all. He couldn’t see that Lamar just saw the world differently than him.”
Since its 2014 launch, she has done a quarter million dollars in revenues, received the Philadelphia Geek Award for Startup of the Year, and garnered media attention. The Autism Expressed curriculum is used throughout the Philadelphia School District, and thousands of students in several states—at public and private schools, as well as in many homes—use the online program.
McKeone grew up in Atlantic City, a wild child middle daughter of a late cocktail waitress she refers to as having a “gypsy spirit.” Her father was a hustler, a knockabout jumping from odd job to odd job. In grad school, she read the research that showed the difference one role model can make in an adolescent’s life. But she didn’t have to read about it; she’d had her Aunt Cathy (Grandma now to Franklin, her puppy). In some ways, McKeone’s commitment to her students—she’s still in touch with them—is her playing Aunt Cathy to them. It’s not their autism that captured her heart; it’s that they’d long been overlooked. Just like a certain club-going Atlantic City teen. (“I have great dance moves,” she boasts.)
McKeone is wrestling now with a rebrand of Autism Expressed. New federal legislation mandates that 15 percent of state vocational office budgets be spent on employment transition services. She’s thinking of changing the name to Digibility (a play on “disability”), and expanding the population of its clientele beyond just those with autism. This would broaden her customer base. And it would no doubt be more lucrative. McKeone says she’s definitely rebranding, but isn’t ready to make the move just yet. “Autism Expressed is my baby,” she says, sheepishly. “I’m part Native American. So I’m waiting for the great spirit to move me.”
McKeone is a mix between action-oriented entrepreneur and spiritualist, someone who is open to the mysteries of the universe, while also driven and defiant. She’s a leader of men and women, with the touch of a poet. At one recent speaking engagement, an audience member pressed her on her motivations.
“Is someone in your family on the spectrum?” she was asked.
The answer was no, but the questioner kept pressing. “Finally, I realized,” McKeone says. “It’s not autism that drives me. It’s empowering underdogs.”
Photo Header: Michele McKeone