Children with autism seem to love this software.

January 30, 2009 at 6:17 pm (autism, Children, homeschool, Life) (, , , , , )

Download software free here.

By Claudia Kalb | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Jan 16, 2009

Science is rich with happy flukes. Remember the story of penicillin?
Alexander Fleming discovered the bacteria-destroying mold by accident
when he left a culture dish uncovered in his lab in 1928. Eight decades
later, here’s another one: a Googlesoftware program called SketchUp,
which was intended largely for architects and design professionals, has
found a very unexpected and welcome fan base-children with autism.
SketchUp is not only entertaining kids with autism spectrum disorders,
it’s providing them with skills that might one day help them as they age
out of school and into the workforce.

It all started when Google’s Tom Wyman and Chris Cronin started getting
enthusiastic calls and e-mails from architects who had children on the
spectrum. Their kids, the parents reported, had discovered the software
program and loved it. All they needed was their creativity and a
computer mouse and they could design entire neighborhoods. It turns out
that SketchUp, which was acquired by Google from a small Colorado-based
startup in 2006, allows people with autism to express their ideas in a
visual way-a welcome release for kids who have trouble communicating
through speech or writing. “After the second or third call, you begin to
think there may be something here,” says Wyman. So he contacted his
local chapter of the Autism Society of America (ASA) in Boulder. “What
gives?” he asked.

What gives is that many people with autism excel at visual thinking.
Studies show they perform exceptionally well on the Block Design Task,
part of a standard IQ test, which assesses an individual’s ability to
recreate a complicated red and white pattern using a set of red and
white blocks. “They’re able to mentally segment the design into its
component parts so they can see where each block would go,” says Ellen
Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, something
non-autistic kids have trouble doing. Geraldine Dawson, chief scientific
officer for Autism Speaks, a leading autism advocacy group, found that
the parents of children with autism have superior spatial abilities on
the Block test, too-a gift they may be passing on to their kids.
Environment likely plays a role as well, says Dawson. Because children
with autism have trouble communicating with people, they tend to spend
their time interacting with objects. The end result: the visual portion
of their brain becomes highly developed.

Anja Kintsch, head of the assistive technology team for the Boulder
Valley School District, has seen this spatial talent up close. Kintsch,
who is trained in special education, has seen students with autism walk
the streets of Denver, then go back to their desks and create perfect
architectural renditions of the city. “I thought they were professional
blueprints,” she says. Kids with autism tend to love computers, too,
because they’re predictable and don’t demand the social skills required
of humans: you don’t have to look them in the eye, talk to them, or read
their emotions.

All of this makes SketchUp a captivating program for people with autism.
Amateur designers can draw straight or curved lines, then use a
“Push/Pull” tool to pull flat shapes into 3-D objects. A rectangle can
be pulled to become the living room in a house; a hole can be pushed out
of a wall to make a window. An “Orbit” tool lets you look at a desk from
back, front, top and bottom. Users can find models that already
exist-furniture, playgrounds, amusement parks-in the program’s 3-D
warehouse to incorporate into their own designs. Or they can store their
3-D houses or stadiums or cities in the warehouse for others to see.
Google’s Wyman says he has seen kids with autism adapt to the program
with little difficulty: “They picked it up at least as quickly as
architects do.” The response was so positive that Google launched
Project Spectrum,a partnership between SketchUp and educational outlets,
i ncluding the Boulder Valley School District and the Boulder chapter of
the ASA, to get the software into the hands of kids and teens with
autism for free.

Meg and Casey Grothus are two of the lucky ones. The week before they
were introduced to SketchUp by the ASA, the teens tried to hand-sketch
the bathroom in their house for a geometry class assignment. A
rectangular room with a door, the layout was “pretty basic,” says their
mother, Heidi Grothus. But it turned out to be a frustrating,
time-consuming and tearful experience. Meg, 17, who has Asperger
Syndrome, says she thinks in pictures and can visualize a design in her
head, but she can’t translate that image onto paper. “I just wouldn’t
know how to get it out,” she says. But when she and her brother tried
the same exercise on SketchUp, “it just clicked,” says Meg. Casey, 18,
has high-functioning autism. He calls his original drawing “a piece of
junk, very crude, very inaccurate.” With SketchUp, Casey was able to
draw the bathroom-and decorate it with toilet, sink, plants and
wallpaper.

Now Meg and Casey are taking part in a SketchUp partnership with Cornell
University, where Matthew Belmonte, an assistant professor in the
department of human development, is creating a video game called
Astropolis. Belmonte says he wanted people on the spectrum to help
construct the game, which will ultimately be used to test the range of
cognitive abilities in people with autism. Meg and Casey joined the
team, using SketchUp to create designs that have been fleshed out and
incorporated into a test version of Astropolis. The teens say they were
thrilled to take part and their mother was delighted to see her children
being treated with respect for their talent, rather than patronized for
the skills they lack.

At the Judevine Center for Autism in St. Louis, Mo., CEO Ron Ekstrand
says educators will use the software as both a socialization tool and a
design program. Using SketchUp, educators can map out unfamiliar
environments that kids with autism might visit, like office buildings,
city parks or doctors’ offices. The unknown can be a major stressor for
kids with autism. If the student has a teeth-cleaning appointment, for
example, teachers can create a SketchUp model of the space, complete
with the dentist’s chair, then walk the child through what to expect
when he gets there. Judevine is building a new lab to teach SketchUp in
collaboration with Mackey Mitchell Architects, a firm that is eager to
tap the design insights of people with autism. The kids will be taught
how to use SketchUp and asked to create their ideal living and learning
spaces. Ekstrand says he hopes to incorporate these dream spaces into
designs for a future school campus and for residential homes that the
center runs for adults with autism. Mackey Mitchell hopes to merge the
students’ ideas into architectural plans for an even larger autism
community, creating new classrooms, schools, living spaces and treatment
centers nationwide that are specifically designed for the growing number
of people on the spectrum. “We believe people with autism have unique
capabilities that are going untapped,” says Ekstrand. “We think we can
provide opportunities for them in the future with highly marketable,
highly valuable skills.”

Job skills are, of course, critical for kids on the autism spectrum. The
unemployment rate for adults with autism is estimated to be as high as
87 percent, says Marguerite Colston, ASA’s vice president of marketing
and the mother of an 8-year-old boy with autism. And 76 percent of
parents of kids with autism are very concerned about their child’s
future employment. “The tragedy is that they have these remarkable
skills which are totally unshared with the broader social world because
we never give them a chance,” says Cornell’s Belmonte. Casey Grothus is
glad he was given the opportunity. “It feels really good,” he says.

For more about Project Spectrum, check out the organization’s Web site.
Or, take a look at this video demonstration on You Tube.  And for more
about using Sketchup, visit the official Google Sketchup blog; for more
about the video game “Astropolis,” visit the Autism Collaborative.

(c) 2009

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