He’s going places one robot at a time
Don’t tell Thomas Ryan-Hicks what he can do, especially when it comes to robotics and his future
Autism does not need to define any child nor should it ever hold one back from pursuing a dream, which for Thomas Ryan-Hicks, ninth-grader at The Founders Academy Public Charter School in Manchester, means robotics.
“Thomas has always had a knack for putting things together,” said his mother, Moira Ryan of Londonderry.
A few years back, this knack turned into a full-blown passion when the Wounded Warrior Project gave Thomas a Kanu computer, which he then built and used to learn to program. At the time, he was attending Mills Fall Charter School in Manchester, which offered robotics for the first time when he was in sixth grade.
“It was the first time Thomas showed an interest in an after-school activity,” said Moira.
When he moved on to Founders the following year, they also offered a robotics team. He had in fact competed against them while at Mills Fall Charter School. Immediately upon joining the robotics program at Founders, Thomas had the chance to not only build “small and then medium-sized robots,” but he was also able to build relationships with students his own age.
“It was also the first time that he interacted with a group of students in a personal way,” said Moira. “He often feels like school focuses a lot on sports, but he was not interested because he can’t play. Robotics was far more inclusive.”
She said teachers were supportive of Thomas, too.
“He was very fortunate to have had Ms. Kelly Griffin and Mr. Michael Gaumont as teachers,” she said. “They made strong efforts to understand and work with him. They want him to have a productive future.”
Describing autism as challenging in that it is a disability that is “hidden,” Moira said such acceptance by people — adult or child — is not always a given.
“People can’t just look at him and see that he has something different about him,” she said. “When they interact with him and he doesn’t respond as they expect, they can get angry or irritated. He can also become tired and anxious when interacting with people. His mind works differently and not everyone responds well to that.”
She said his participation in robotics has been very important, because it has been one of the first times in which he voluntarily has interacted with other students.
“They all liked robotics and would talk about different ideas,” she said.
Not all robotics programs have exactly worked for her son, either, as Moira noted that some grade kids on presentations. Thomas does not recognize group dynamics well and it is difficult for him to interact with the group.
“He does not like to make eye contact with people,” she said. “I don’t think [some programs] ever considered that it could be an issue for a participant.”
At Founders, however, inclusion has been a driving concept behind the robotics program.
“The robotics team wanted to build a more inclusive environment and allow him to try different areas of robotics,” she said. “They also wanted to let other kids know that it’s okay to let someone with a disability participate.”
Thomas wants others to know that people like him can participate, too.
Acknowledging that building robots is not easy, Thomas said his team supports him.
“We are trying to show I can participate even if I have autism,” he said.
He said his mom has played a critical role, too.
“She drives me to all the meetings and stays there to help me focus,” he added. “She helps me find videos to help me learn how to build robots … My mom scribes for me, too.”
Describing her role as a support for Thomas as “24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” Moira said she works hard to try and provide him with tools to help him succeed in life.
“My son is incredibly creative and smart,” she said. “He’s also horribly socially awkward and, at times, inappropriate. We talk about expected and unexpected behavior all the time.”
For Thomas, robotics itself is exciting because it is “a field for creativity.”
“I can build anything I want,” he said. “It helps me meet and talk to people with similar interests. It is something where leaders are not necessary and everyone gets heard.”
For Moira, though, the takeaway is not that robotics is a solution that could work for all, or at least many, kids with autism. Rather, it is that kids with autism are all different.
“Just because you know someone who knows someone who has autism does not mean that you are going to understand my kid,” she said. “Many people think if I just insert an item here — change his diet or less screen time — it will make him normal. I don’t think that’s reality.”
To a real and practical extent, he is who he is as a person, and she said there is tremendous value in accepting that.
“He feels he is good just as he is,” she said.
As for his future, Thomas speaks for himself.
“I really want to go to MIT,” he said. “I have had a lot of places tell me I can’t go there because I have autism, but I really hope MIT is different because I really want to be an engineer.”