Meet the Future Face of Technology - Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Technology FieldsMeet the Future Face of Technology - Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Technology Fields

Supporting Minnesotans with ASD to Get Jobs in Technology Fields

From Document Imaging to Super Computer

Aaron Erdman
Aaron Erdman at the computer for the LMVL Visualization Laboratory. The skeleton graphic which can be rotated and labeled, will be posted on the Internet.

Aaron Erdman, an individual with autism spectrum disorder, had a busy summer by any standard. During this time he took an eight-week, condensed, online course from his community college and held an internship with the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute (MSI) on the University of Minnesota's, Minneapolis campus. It was a great summer for Aaron.

Just one school year away from obtaining his Associate in Applied Science degree in Information Technology, Erdman was fortunate to be able to assist the support staff of MSI. His work involved a variety of tasks, including benchmarking newly installed software. His research allowed MSI to recommend the best applications for each software version. Erdman was assigned multiple projects and deadlines and found the need to quickly "brush up on Linux language."

"Unfortunately, I am waiting for others to give me the data that I need," said Erdman, echoing an everyday challenge in the workplace.

Erdman updated and added to sections of the internal "wiki" for MSI and was part of a team producing an informational video about the labs and core hardware of the supercomputer. Both products will eventually be uploaded to the Internet. He had access to two of MSI's three dramatic visualization screens. He worked most closely with the Lab for Computational Science and Engineering, Minnesota Supercomputer Institute, Visualization Laboratory (LMVL) a floor to ceiling computer screen that provides a mammoth display for graphics and visuals for the purpose of training and research. At the end of his internship, Erdman enjoyed working alongside staff in educating tour groups on the visualization laboratory and the supercomputer.

Although Erdman mentioned that his dad, a U of M professor of mechanical engineering, talked to his contacts at MSI to set up this valuable internship, Erdman's years of determination made him the perfect candidate for this opportunity.

Before entering Century Community College, Erdman's experience in the Wellness Experience Life Skills North program at Intermediate School District 916, in the northeast metro area of St. Paul, Minnesota, allowed him to take on a variety of challenges. In his first year of the transition program out of high school, a document imaging work center was being created and benefited from his keen interest in technology. Erdman diligently read computer manuals and worked alongside the installer and consultant for the new system. It was clear that his passion for technology was an asset to the program. He became a key interface for the school with the set up of the technical equipment and established the working procedures to maintain the confidentiality standards for the documents.

"Most of all, I wanted to keep challenging him.  I didn't want him to become stagnant," said Cynthia Sapinski, work coordinator for the Transition program. "I wanted him to broaden himself to be more... and to keep trying to keep going and to learn to be an advocate for himself."

The advocacy skills were learned when Erdman had completed his work setting up the scanning project and decided to look at college coursework, Sapinski encouraged him to move on to take the advanced classes at the local community college. She encouraged him to take online or smaller classes that would be less intimidating, and to ask for help and seek out alternatives when a situation was uncomfortable. She made a special effort to introduce Erdman to the supervisor of the Access Center at the college and this personal connection made it easier for Erdman to feel more comfortable on campus as he began taking a few classes. She also helped him obtain a student work assignment at the computer lab. He soon became an assistant to the teacher, increased his class load and, in a year, was a full time student. As expected, the technical classes were easily tackled, but the communications and interpersonal skills class was a challenge since the terms and definitions weren't as natural or as logical in his mind as the technical language. When he scored just a fraction below a perfect score in these classes, it was clear that Aaron was meeting the challenge of college.

Erdman also passed another milestone to expand his independence by beginning to use his driver's license and facing the cold reality that insurance rates for a young adult go through the roof.  His frustration with high traffic areas was solved by taking the back roads and staying away from congested areas. Feeling more comfortable driving himself around as his schedule or activities multiplied, he one day arrived at Sapinski's office to show off his car. This was another example of Erdman's determination to reach his goals. His focus is now on graduating and entering into the computer science program at the University of Minnesota.