Sketching skills: Collaboration between Google, U. benefits kids with autism spectrum disorder

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 5:00 p.m. MST

University of Utah graduate student Katie Newbold watches as Colton Magill works on his design using Google's 3-D modeling software program, Google SketchUp.

University of Utah iSTAR team

SALT LAKE CITY — If you just peek into the computer lab, you can see that the students are using Google SketchUp to build 3-D models of houses or dinosaurs or city parks.

But you have to look deeper to see what else a recent study found they're building with the freeware program: social skills, friendships, self-confidence and better relationships with their siblings. Not to mention skills that may lead to future employment.

The students in the University of Utah iSTAR program range in age from grade school to young adults. About half of them have been challenged by an autism spectrum disorder while others have different issues, from attention deficit to learning disabilities. But when they use the software modeling program, these kids are all-stars — and not in a good-for-someone-with-challenges way, says Tom Wyman, Google manager for business development.

"They are better than most of the world's population with this," he asserts happily of a collaboration that set out to give challenged kids employment skills and ended up changing some lives. "The thing that gets me excited about the project is that SketchUp allows people with autism (and other disorders) to recognize their strengths and use them in a way to contribute to society, be financially independent, build self-esteem and know you're really good at something."

Lonely no more

Nik Charles believes it. His son, Christopher, 12, struggled to make friends because of his autism when he started using the program a couple of years ago. He has those friends now.

Recently, he stood at a podium in front of strangers at a workshop in Florida to explain the technology to others, a fact his father finds astonishing.

"I can't do that; I would be too scared," Nik Charles says.

Google SketchUp is used by millions of professionals worldwide to make 3-D models. Architects, teachers, video game designers, theme park artists and others all employ it.

The collaboration between the University of Utah and Google that brought it to these children was serendipitous. A little company in Boulder, Colo., had created the program for architects, before Google acquired it. Google allows employees to use 20 percent of their work time on projects that resonate with them individually and hopefully will help the company, too. For about eight of them, including Wyman, the 20 percent has been Project Spectrum, working with kids on the autism spectrum.

A joyful union

What has evolved is a happy marriage of talent and technology. A high proportion of people with autism have spectacular visual and computer talents, often invisible if you haven't managed to tap into them, says Cheryl Wright, associate professor in the department of family and consumer studies at the U., who launched the iSTAR program with colleagues from an interdisciplinary research group spanning social and behavioral science, nursing and health. They published a study of iSTAR/Project Spectrum results last month in the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal that documents stunning benefits. A typical school focuses on areas where those kids don't shine particularly well, like math and reading.

Google's long-range goal in helping, she says, was employment. Young adults with autism and other challenges are often unemployed or underemployed. They wondered if they could foster skills that could lead to job opportunities, so iSTAR and Project Spectrum hosted a standing-room-only seminar for teachers and parents two years ago. It was clear interest was high.

A world of difference

The goal was always to reach children nationally and beyond, but Wyman says that didn't seem possible before iSTAR was formed.

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