As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, Paul Braun was constantly looking for ways to help his son. After attending a keynote presentation by Mary Temple Grandin, a leading advocate for autistic communities, he realized his career as a geographer might be the answer.
“Temple Grandin said she was a visual thinker, often overwhelmed by the imagery in her brain. I suddenly think to myself, wait a minute, I stare at imagery all day. That’s what we do [in the GEOINT] industry, we look at the world,” said Braun, who left the presentation deliberating how he can combine his knowledge and background of the GEOINT industry to help his son and others like him.
In 2012, he founded Taking Autism To The Sky (TATTS), a volunteer-run non-profit organization that leverages drones to develop social and employment skills for youth and children on the autism spectrum.
By working in teams to both operate drones and review footage (image and video), participants develop GEOINT- and non-GEOINT-related job skills. Some of those skills include image interpretation, cartography, videography, teamwork, and storytelling.
“We want good team members who can participate and are engaged in the work,” Braun said. He emphasized these skills are applicable to today’s workforce, not just the industry-specific skills, which could turn into careers, but also basic skills like taking turns.
Additionally, the use of drones helps foster social skills for participants. Individuals with autism often think very literally; they desire predictability and struggle with understanding adverse points of views. By using drones, Braun provided opportunities for these youth to see the world from a different point of view, literally.
“That ability to put your mind into somebody else’s world, that’s really tough for people on the autism spectrum. Drones provide a literal way to see the world differently,” Braun said.
Their 2020 programming includes Flight Simulator Stations, a Visualization Station, and Flight Schools. Every year, TATTS continues to grow, and many of their participants continue to return, some bringing their own drones. Many of the drones used in the program are purchased by TATTS with funds awarded to the organization, such as the $10,000 it received in 2014 from the DC Drone User Group’s Drones Social Innovation Award.
“As the foundation grows and the technology continues to evolve, we want to try and do more sophisticated activities with some our more advanced participants,” said Braun.
Featured image: Braun flying a drone with a TATTS participant. (Credit: Paul Braun)