SALT LAKE CITY — Digger has a tough time breaking out of his world and expressing what's on his mind.
As a 9-year-old with autism, the desire to socialize with his classmates, or even give a book report becomes excruciatingly awkward.
"He just wants to fit in, and wants to be a part of what's going on with kids his age, but he's just different enough that he's not sure what to do," Digger's mother, Lynn Frick-Dolan, said.
Digger is not alone. It is estimated that 1 in 110 children, and 1 in 70 boys in the U.S. are effected by autism. In Utah, it is estimated that 1 in 49 boys has some form of autism as of 2008. Experts say the autism rate in Utah has doubled since 2002.
Now researchers, including some from the University of Utah, have developed an education system that uses computer programs— and soon iPhone/iPad apps — that will help children with special needs not only learn, but bridge those communication gaps that keep many children stuck inside their minds.
"It has taken him from his world to somehow functioning in our world and to be able to communicate with us," Frick-Dolan said.
A group of autistic grade-school children have been a part of an innovative new research study at the University of Utah that uses computers to help them express themselves. Teaming up with Google, the program uses 3-D software that typically is used by architects and video game designers. One other benefit is that Google SketchUp is offered free to the public. Google also provides software experts to U. staff.
Not only could this software help in their early education, Wright said, but could also teach them important life skills that will help them excel in careers as adults.
Wright said experts researching the use of technology in helping children with special needs want to start sharing their discoveries.
The group plans on holding a free public panel discussion on the subject July 11, 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake Main Library's main auditorium. The event is open to parents who have children with all manner of special needs.
Wright said her research has discovered that using visual design software, like Google SketchUp, makes for a natural fit. The first time her group of autistic kids used the software, they left their parents in the dust in terms of learning to use it, she said.
Experts are just now beginning to see the promise of using apps to help kids schedule their day and learn in ways that meet their needs.
By visualizing their thoughts, the kids also find it easier to communicate with parents and other children about their ideas — something Wright said has been very difficult for some children.
Frick-Dolan said Digger loves Bakugan battle robots. Using Google SketchUp, he was able to create a battle arena from his favorite toy.
"He actually was able to articulate with us. He said, 'Mom, wouldn't it be nice to have a friend in my pocket, and if I needed him he could come out!'"
"I'm excited for what the future holds," Frick-Dolan said.
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