Matt Willing is a materials application engineer at GE Aerospace who spends his days engineering titanium, aluminum, and fastener components inside commercial and military jet engines. A few years ago, after attending a talk on neurodiverse hiring programs, he got involved with the Disability Advocacy Network (DAN), an employee resource group at GE, and joined the Neurodiversity Roundtable. In a sense, the roundtable was an extension of his day-to-day work — a chance to deepen his knowledge of neurodiversity and figure out how to create the optimal environment for employees with different needs to work together.

“I have a daughter with autism,” Willing says. “She’s 15 now. That talk really spoke to me, because she was getting older and my wife and I started to think, ‘What’s her life going to look like as she ages and reaches adulthood?’”

It is not an idle concern. According to the southwest Ohio nonprofit Autism Connections, formerly the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, 85% of adults with autism who have a college education are unemployed, and approximately 75% of all adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed.

“There’s a real need for services for individuals with autism from ages 15 to 22, known as transition age,” says Mary Helen Richer, CEO of Autism Connections. “It’s a critical age to learn social and life skills, as well as explore future career or job opportunities. We find families and individuals with autism can sometimes need help getting started with some of that exploration, which is why we champion working together with appropriate resources and businesses to make that happen.”

As Willing quickly discovered, he wasn’t the only person at GE who has a child on the autism spectrum, or an interest in improving the company’s efforts at increasing and nurturing neurodiversity. One of those people is Darin DiTommaso, vice president of engineering for Edison Works and an executive champion of DAN. Last year, in the midst of brainstorming some new ideas for community outreach, DiTommaso had one of those lightbulb moments: Why don’t we do a STEM camp for autistic kids?

Matt Willing measures the final tall tower height while Talia looks on.

Word immediately got back to Willing, who by now was leading the roundtable. “I was thrilled,” he says. “It kind of created a spark and we ran with it.”

Last fall, that spark morphed into a full-blown STEM camp experience. The idea, says Willing, is to introduce students on the autism spectrum to the field of engineering. While the DAN team worked with the Kelly O’Leary Center in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (DDBP) at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, as well as the Autism Connections, to spread the word in the community and provide autism-focused assistance, Willing and a small group of fellow engineers came up with an agenda.

Over two consecutive weekends in October and November, seven local junior high and high school students, along with their parents and a dedicated crew of GE Aerospace, DDBP, and Autism Connections volunteers, met up on the Evendale campus. After taking a tour through GE Aerospace history in the Learning Center, the students spent the first half of each session working on projects in small groups; during the second half, GE engineers talked to them “about their real-life work and experiences,” says Willing.

Willing knew he had a serious group of proto-engineers when one boy immediately asked, “Which engine goes on the A-10?” (Answer: the T-34, which happened to be on display in the Learning Center for him to inspect.) Two of the projects the students worked on came straight from the Next Engineers curriculum, a college-and-career-readiness program created by the GE Foundation that aims to increase the diversity of young people in the engineering field. For the Tall Tower Challenge, students build a structure using pipe cleaners, paper clips, and straws that is strong enough to hold a golf ball for two minutes, while the Water Tower Challenge involves designing and building a water tower with a flow valve that can deliver water to a cup three feet away. A third project, dubbed the Jet Fan Adventure, was developed by Chris Day, a senior engineer at GE Aerospace’s Additive Technology Center and leader of the Edison Engineering Development Program. Day was on hand to help guide the students through the process of assembling the fan and wiring the circuit to make it run.

Chris Day discusses engineering during the Jet Fan Adventure project .

Needless to say, the projects were a big hit. Willing recalls that during the Tall Tower Challenge, two boys in one group were discussing how to design the base of their tower as their third partner, a girl named Talia, looked on. “She wasn’t overly verbal,” Willing recalls, “but she grabbed this ball of modeling clay and started rolling it out furiously. As she did, she started to talk more. She built this little prototype and then announced, ‘You mean like this?’ And sure enough, they started building the base out that way.” For the Water Tower Challenge, Talia ended up creating “an intricate flow valve out of binder clips, tongue depressors, and balloons,” which she took home with her, he adds, “because that was her design, and it worked really well.”

Perhaps the most resonant moment of the whole camp came during a presentation delivered via video by Julie Mills, an engineer with GE HealthCare in Wisconsin. Mills, who has autism, described how she’d used two prisms to show her colleagues why a computer display issue they were grappling with was a hardware problem, rather than what they assumed was a software problem. When asked how her autism helps her succeed in her work, Mills said that instead of thinking outside the box, “for me, there is no box.”

For Marty Fritsch, director of commercial engine services and the leader of DAN at GE Aerospace, eliminating that box and connecting with the community is what the camp is all about. “The STEM camp is a perfect example of executing upon the Disability Advocacy Network’s mission to provide support and resources for empowering our employees and to embrace a culture in which people with disabilities, their families, and their allies can connect and shine in ways that are uniquely possible in GE,” he says. “The successful collaboration with Autism Connections and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center demonstrates how we as allies combine our strengths for the betterment of the Greater Cincinnati community.”

The feedback Willing received from the students and families who participated was positive enough that the DAN team plans to host another STEM camp later this year. “The parents said that after the first session, the kids were excited to come back for week two,” he says. “They were all really engaged. I think it definitely spurred an interest in engineering, and that’s great.”