University of Utah's iSTAR program helps children with autism shine

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 1:50 p.m. MST

Colton, right, who has autism, helps Stacy Walther and Steven Elzinga use a 3D design program called SketchUp at an iSTAR5 community seminar at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah’s iSTAR educational program focuses on children with autism — specifically teaching them how to use computers for 3-D modeling.

The university held a demonstration for parents and teachers Thursday to show how SketchUp, a free downloadable design program, could help children at home and in the classroom.

Children with autism often face challenges in school, but this program gives them an opportunity to shine and show people what they can do. The program uses Trimble's SketchUp to display the child’s spatial-visual strengths.

Mason designed a character for a video game. The 15-year-old said he likes the program, “because you can do basically anything on it.”

“They have an affinity for computers and technology, and so what we’re really doing is building on their strengths,” explained Cheryl Wright, assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

She, along with Scott Wright with the University of Utah Gerontology interdisciplinary program, have been working on a curriculum that they hope can become the norm in schools across the country to help teach children with autism valuable life skills.

“That’s particularly important for this population because often times there are high rates of unemployment or under-employment,” she said.

Steve Gross, a certified SketchUp instructor and designer for Universal Creative, mentored children on how he used SketchUp to design attractions like Transformers and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s theme parks. 

In the program, students create 3-D models of their own individual design. “I don’t give them a lot of direction on what they create, because I want them to be in charge of that,” Gross said. “I just facilitate and show them how to use the tools.”

Gross likes the program and uses it all the time because, he said, it’s a fairly easy program to learn and use.

“So most of these kids can draw, to some degree, but when they do draw, it doesn’t really look like what they want it to look like,” Gross said. “But with SketchUp, they really get good results quickly so you don’t get to the point where they get discouraged.”

For the last three years, the instructors have seen encouraging results, with children actively engaged in their projects, showing increased confidence, and having better interacting skills — a trait not often associated with people with autism.

“Look at what’s very unique here, the social interaction going on,” said Scott Wright. “This isn’t just sitting in front of a computer with tunnel vision. They are sharing and learning from each other.”

The goal is to work with them to develop computer skills that companies like Universal, Disney, Google and others are always looking for, and that someday, these students might provide.

“All this builds up competency, mastery and a feeling of being able to shine, let talent shine through,” Scott Wright said.

E-mail: kmccord@ksl.com

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