Five years ago (next month) our severely autistic son Daniel had a major breakthrough. Then twelve years old, with a using vocabulary of thirty or forty words (though we knew he understood far more) he suddenly learned to answer questions by picking the answers out, one letter at a time, on a letterboard. Within a couple of weeks, Daniel could use the thousands of words he had heard but could not speak.

The teacher who created this breakthrough, Soma Mukhopadhyay, also taught us how to read to Daniel: read him a sentence, stop, ask him a comprehension question, get his answer on the letter board, go on to the next sentence, ask another question…

Daniel at 1:43

Dan has now earned six certificates and has learned from dipping into several other courses as well. It’s a great introduction to college learning. It is something new in the world for an undergraduate —especially a seventeen year old autistic one— to be able to study Ancient Greek literature from very different points of view at Penn, Wesleyan and the University of Virginia. This whole world is new to him: standards, peers, comradeship and competition. And with his induction into this world came something that would surprise some critics of MOOCs: Daniel experienced a dramatic decrease in his sense of isolation. There are emails and forum posts and people who accept Dan despite (or ignoring) his autism. But there are also in-the-flesh encounters stemming initially from Al Filreis’ commitment to openness and his invitation to his students to drop by Kelly Writers House at Penn.