SALT LAKE CITY — When Dylan Lamb, 24, moved to Utah from California as a child, his family was in search of educational support for his diagnosed autism spectrum disorder.
He said it was a struggle finding adequate help in the traditional public education system. He was able to graduate high school but still faced an uncertain adult future in a world that had little understanding or patience for people with his developmental disability.
“Over time it was more like crawling through the ‘social mud’ that is life for an autistic person like myself,” Lamb said.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that affects individuals with impaired communication and social interaction and in some cases, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.
When a program to help was launched in the Salt Lake Valley about three years ago, Lamb jumped at the opportunity and has been involved ever since.
A team of University of Utah researchers and their startup company, NeuroVersity, have partnered with organizations in Longmont, Colorado, and Salt Lake City to host two summer camps that teach computer skills to students with autism.
The students, who typically range from 12 to 22 years old, learn 3-D modeling skills to help them develop confidence and job skills for potential internships and job opportunities, said Cheryl Wright, NeuroVersity co-founder and professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.
“When they leave public school, they are going to face a (high) unemployment rate because they don’t have the skills and don’t have the help to negotiate (the job search process),” Wright said.
The Utah camp is underway and runs through July 22 at the Columbus Community Center in South Salt Lake.
“(This program) is going to give people like us an actual, honest chance,” Lamb said. “It will help make life more enjoyable instead of a trial.”
Launched in 2013, NeuroVersity is an evidence-based social enterprise developed through the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the U. with a goal of improving personal, social and vocational skills in transition-age youth with autism spectrum disorder.
“One of the keys to the quality of life for individuals with autism is meaningful employment,” said Scott Wright, NeuroVersity co-founder and professor of nursing at the U. The social mission of the program addresses the high rates of unemployment for individuals with autism, which represent one of the highest rates of all disability groups, explained Amy Wadsworth, Autism Program Consultant with Columbus Community Center.
“Underemployment is a huge issue,” she said. “Living independently is a formidable challenge for this population.”
Many individuals with autism do not have an intellectual disability but may have communication and social interaction challenges that make getting and keeping a job difficult, Wadsworth said.
“Many with autism are unemployed or underemployed in low-skill jobs that do not match their skill and ability,” Scott Wright said. “(Our program) uses technology as a platform for students to demonstrate their potential to employers who are willing to see ability versus deficits.”
Based in Salt Lake City, NeuroVersity uses the software that focuses on career exploration in 3-D design. It tries to introduce students to skills that could be used in careers that include engineering, arechitectural design, urban planning, game design, film and stage, interior design and landscaping.
The program goal is to create opportunities for potential internships and meaningful employment – and fostering competency and mastery of 3-D design interests and visual-spatial skills, Wright added.
Pam Grover is the parent of a teenage son named Josh, who has flourished in the program, she said.
"(The program) has given him an opportunity to interact and develop friendships with like-minded youth also challenged by autism, in a collaborative environment," Grover said. "(It) removes the grading, judgement and evaluation present in school, replaced with collaboration, responsibility and pride in accomplishment."
She added that the program inspires confidence in Josh's public speaking as he shows the work he has completed each day and also gives him a profitable skill — 3-D modeling — that is applicable for many technical jobs in Utah.
Thus far, the program has placed three students in technology internships with community partners, five students in full-time employment and three students have received associates degrees in design.
Student Mason Dimock, 18, said the program has been life changing for him.
“It’s helped me a lot with developing skills that (employers) want and need,” he said. “It’s also helped me socially. I’ve made a few friends here.”
He said a lot of people with autism “are good with technology and very creative” and the program “gives them a chance to express that and at the same time gives them career skills that they can use in life.”