Mar 31, 2014 — It was recently discovered SketchUp, a 3D modeling program, is not only easy to use for some autistic individuals, but it also helps develop confidence and social skills. In some cases, the transformation is amazing. Scott Wright talks about his research, what he’s learned, and what it means for individuals with autism making the transition into adulthood.

Interview

Interviewer: There's a free program called SketchUp which is showing great promise in teaching individuals with autism social skills and confidence. We're going to find out more about that next on The Scope.

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Interviewer: Scott Wright is a researcher at the University of Utah and one of his primary focuses right now is using Google SketchUp for strengthening social engagement and occupational development for children with high functioning autism. It's actually pretty amazing what's going on. What are you finding?

Dr. Wright: It turns out that the interesting connection between SketchUp and individuals on the autism spectrum was actually first noticed by Google employees.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Wright: The Google engineer was going, "Oh, this is interesting. My son," as an example, "is showing great interest in this SketchUp." But here it was like a natural affinity with the children, young adults on the autism spectrum would just pull up to a computer and there'd be this natural interface with SketchUp. Usually with other people there's training and familiarity.

Interviewer: Oh, but they were able to pick it up pretty quickly.

Dr. Wright: Fairly fast.

Interviewer: Interesting.

Dr. Wright: And then be very creative with what SketchUp can do.

Interviewer: What are some of the uses of SketchUp beyond just something to play around with?

Dr. Wright: Typically SketchUp is one of the first, not the only, software tool that can be used to design new buildings on campus. There's that-- that's kind of like a very rigid project--but SketchUp can be very, very creative. Universal Creative, Disney, there's a lot of different companies that use SketchUp where they want to design theme parks or set designs. That's a very interesting aspect to where SketchUp can draw out the talent, the abilities in individuals. We find this to be a great aspect with youth on the autism spectrum because we like to approach this that there is a talent ability. SketchUp just allows that to shine forward.

Interviewer: What about people that are using it help develop social skills for individuals with autism? I don't quite make that connection.

Dr. Wright: Okay. That's a very good question. Indeed, for us, that was sort of a phenomena that emerged in our workshops where originally the goal was maybe we can help youth on the autism spectrum learn a skill set that is valued in the business industry, especially the technology sector. It would help with vocational readiness. But one of the benefits that was being derived which was unexpected was how the youth that we interact with, the students with autism, was that there would be this opening up of peers sharing with one another what they were working on because usually the stereotype might be somebody in front of a computer just focused with tunnel vision in front of the screen. Whereas here we are noticing our students getting up out of their chairs, going over to see what their friends were doing, their colleagues, sharing, going back and forth and the next thing you know was this heightened social engagement to where we had individuals who were at the end of a workshop standing up in front of their peers, doing a presentation, and doing it with high master and competency and confidence.

Interviewer: Wow.

Dr. Wright: In other settings they would have a tendency to be perhaps very reserved, quiet. For some people they'll think, "Oh, they're just simply non-verbal," but in these situations there was this excitement and enthusiasm and really, to some degree, a breakthrough. One of the administrators walking by had to do a double take like, "What's going on there? There's laughter and it's a group of kids on the spectrum. Something's not right." So they walked in there and, "What's going on?" We said it's just presentation day, and she was like, "These are not my kids." So we feel like that's the cool thing.

Interviewer: What's going on? To observe is one thing but to explain it is something else.

Dr. Wright: Good point. We think that the secret ingredient, the recipe, what's going on in the equation is that with SketchUp where one is allowed to shine through with a talent or an ability and showcase that in front of others who appreciate, respect that, we think that that creates and triggers a cascade effect with building up of mastery competency to then share and to help stretch the social envelope a little bit instead of being perhaps reserved and not wanting to engage. So the key is the foundation of mastery, competency at, in this case, we would call visual, spacial strengths where SketchUp is really a great tool to allow that to shine. Then that leads to the ability to socially engage. We think that that is something that we're learning more about that's part of our research, but we notice how you can carry that confidence--I'll call that the portability of mastery--into different settings.

Interviewer: Yeah. So as a final thought here, if parents are listening and they're interested more about using SketchUp, what advice or information do you have for them?

Dr. Wright: Well, the first thing would be this is a software tool that is free so one can go to Tremble SketchUp and download this if they wanted to give a try at home. Remember, it doesn't work with all individuals. It would be too broad of a statement to say this is a magic experience for every individual on the spectrum. It is not. We worked mainly with boys, young men. We're hoping to expand more for girls, young women to have this opportunity, especially with the notion that this could be a nice opportunity toward the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and math. But we feel like one of the key ingredients is to try to have that experience with SketchUp in a social setting with peers, and friends, and other individuals. Then there is this this event I would call where something exponential takes places. There's a catalyst issue that's going on that we find quite remarkable. Technology plus social opportunity equals a very great experience for these individuals on the spectrum.

Interviewer: So kind of like the movie Awakenings?

Dr. Wright: Instead of being kind of a light switch moment, our workshops take place over a period of a week. So what's most fascinating to watch is the change over that span of one week.

Interviewer: Is it pretty dramatic?

Dr. Wright: By Friday, at the end of the week, it is really quite dramatic because you invite friends, family members, teachers to come in. We've done workshops all over the United States and we have had teachers and administrators of programs simply stunned on Friday. They're going like, "This is not the same person that I know--they're confidence of talking about what they've just done the entire week." Another parent will go like, "My child barely speaks and here they are exuding this confidence." So for us, we have an interest of course with our research how to sustain this. It's a key thing.

Interviewer: Sure.

Dr. Wright: Can this be sustained? We believe that it can because that's where the peer group and where parents and others can keep it going because the key issue is if you learn a skill set and you learn a competency the key will be to sustain it toward the next big step in development. Of course that's leading to a topic on transition to adulthood.

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