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

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.

"We know this works for kids with autism in terms of helping with creative expression," he says. "But we couldn't really quantify and explain how it works. We were 3-D nerds, not autism experts."

The U. researchers started shooting and analyzing video and studying the results. That, combined with Google's relationship with others, like Easter Seals, which focuses on employment opportunities for people with disabilities and hosts a "Sketch-A-Space" competition, has made the effort global. Wyman hopes to see it replicated again and again.

They weren't surprised that the creative outlet unleashed talent they'd long suspected was there. But the degree to which the sessions served as a platform for social engagement with a group that is typically socially awkward was exciting, Wright says.

The published U. study quotes a mom on the first day: "When I came back to watch, it was the noisiest place ever. The kids were moving and jumping, checking out what everyone was doing. It was just amazing. … He really wants relationships with kids. He really wants that. He wants other kids to like him."

When iSTAR organizers invited the participants to bring their siblings to the classes, Denise Dimock made a mental note that it was a nice gesture. "I didn't realize what would evolve from there," she says. Her son, Mason, 14, has no formal diagnosis beyond a learning disability. "Neurodiverse" describes his various tics and sensory issues. Still, he's a happy 14-year-old who does well in his school, the Open Classroom, another iSTAR location, and has lots of friends.

Now, though, he's closer to his sister, Hannah, connecting in ways they didn't before she saw his mad skills with SketchUp, which she also loves. They work together sometimes and she avails herself of his expertise.

"I think what I notice is that she's looking up to him," Dimock says.

Bridges and dreams

Wright says the iSTAR researchers could see parents, siblings and grandparents all reframing their expectations of what the participants could accomplish in life. And they watched bridges form across generations.

Part of the magic came from Steve Gross, who did more than teach SketchUp to the kids. A Universal Studios designer whose credits include a Harry Potter-themed park, Gross and his students bonded. Bettie Magill says when her grandson, Colton, 19, who has Asperger's syndrome, got stuck while trying to illustrate a play using SketchUp, he sometimes emailed Gross, who was out of the country working on a project. Help always arrived quickly. "Those boys are a priority for him," Magill says.

As part of the program, each participant took SketchUp back to his own school (most participants were boys), and did presentations, teaching classmates. The same children who were often overlooked as "different" or "disabled" became the experts at something everyone wanted to master. It changed the dynamic.

"One of the principals announced on loud speaker, 'One of our students is an expert at SketchUp,'" Wright recalls with delight, adding that it has been a great opportunity for kids who too often see others focus not on their skills, but on their limitations.

"I wish you could see them when they present their project for a group," Magill says, noting that Gross controlled the computer, while they controlled him. "They just love it, telling him what to do. They know it's an accomplishment. They are proud of their skills."

So are their families. Colton has helped teach the program and built leadership skills. He hopes to attend Salt Lake Community College soon, something she's not sure would have been a goal before.

"My eyes have been opened," says Dimock. "I didn't know Mason had this aptitude for technology. It's exciting and made me realize the possibilities in the future for employment, etc."

Robert Browning's grandson, Isaac, 11, has attention deficit and a hard time focusing. Not so when he's mastering computer modeling. He used the program to create Lego-type creations, among other things. Then he taught his classmates how to use it. It has brought out the best of Isaac, who Browning calls "a lot of fun. He's a bright chap."

Said another parent of his son in the study: "He's gotten a lot of negative strokes out in the world. He has failed … or hated soccer, basketball. He didn't understand the game; he didn't make friends. I think this project has been a place where he has gotten honest, positive strokes for something he's doing."

The skills participants build will translate to other technologies as well, Wyman says.

You can learn more about the collaboration at and

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